Detecting Stress at the Whole-Ecosystem Level: The Case of a Mountain Lake (Lake Santo, Italy)
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Detecting the early signs of stress is imperative for the conservation of natural ecosystems. They may, however, go unrecognized because ecosystems, when disturbed, may act as sinks that absorb the external impact without showing any evident changes. This seems to be the case for Lake Santo, a small water body located in a mountainous area of northern Italy. Tourism activity in this area began to develop in the early 1970s and grew continuously over the following 20 years. This activity caused a continually increasing nutrient load into the waters, but surprisingly the lake has remained oligo-mesotrophic, as it was before human pressure became a stressor to the lake. To anticipate possible severe damage to the ecosystem, we searched for early signs of stress by carrying out a retrospective analysis based on a whole-ecosystem approach using trophic flow networks. Ecosystem properties of the lake as calculated from network analysis for the disturbed (year 1991) and unimpacted (year 1973) configurations were compared, with the support of sensitivity analysis and statistical tests. We found evidence that in the period 1970–90 nutrient enrichment did change the course of normal development as the observed increase in system throughput was accompanied by a drop in the level of mutual organization of flows, which instead would be expected to increase during the natural progression of the ecosystem. The scenario that emerged from the comparison of system-level indices, cycling activity, trophic structure, and trophic efficiency indicates that the ecosystem has been subjected to stress. In particular, the type of disturbance corresponds to a quantitative definition of eutrophication.