By Eric Sorensen, science writer, Washington State University
PULLMAN, Wash. – As long as ecologists have studied temperate lakes, the winter has been their off-season. It’s difficult, even dangerous, to look under the ice, and they figured plants, animals and algae weren’t doing much in the dark and cold anyway.
But an international team of 62 scientists looking at more than 100 lakes has concluded that life under the ice is vibrant, complex and surprisingly active. Their findings stand to complicate the understanding of freshwater systems just as climate change is warming lakes around the planet.
“As ice seasons are getting shorter around the world, we are losing ice without a deep understanding of what we are losing,” said Stephanie Hampton, a Washington State University professor and lead author of a study published in the journal Ecology Letters. “Food for fish, the chemical processes that affect their oxygen and greenhouse gas emissions will shift as ice recedes.”
“A lake doesn’t go to sleep when it’s covered with a blanket of ice and snow,” said Liz Blood, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research. “While winter’s lower temperatures and light levels may force lake life into a slower mode, algae and zooplankton are still abundant.
“What will happen if lake ice cover decreases in warming temperatures?” she said. “These results are a significant step in understanding what may be far-reaching changes for lake ecosystems.”