A Framework for Understanding Variation in Pelagic Gross Primary Production of Lake Ecosystems

Abstract

Light and nutrient availability are key physiological constraints for primary production. Widespread environmental changes are causing variability in loads of terrestrial dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and nutrients from watersheds to lakes, contributing to simultaneous changes in both light and nutrient supply. Experimental evidence highlights the potential for these watershed loads to create complex and context-dependent responses of within-lake primary production; however, the field lacks a predictive model to investigate these responses. We embedded a well-established physiological model of phytoplankton growth within an ecosystem model of nutrient and DOC supply to assess how simultaneous changes in DOC and nutrient loads could impact pelagic primary production in lakes. The model generated a unimodal relationship between GPP and DOC concentration when loads of DOC and nutrients were tightly correlated across space or time. In this unimodal relationship, the magnitude of the peak GPP was primarily determined by the DOC-to-nutrient ratio of the load, and the location of the peak along the DOC axis was primarily determined by lake area. Greater nutrient supply relative to DOC load contributed to greater productivity, and larger lake area increased light limitation for primary producers at a given DOC concentration, owing to the positive relationship between lake area and epilimnion depth. When loads of DOC and nutrients were not tightly correlated in space or time, the model generated a wedge-shaped pattern between GPP and DOC, consistent with spatial surveys from a global set of lakes. Our model is thus capable of unifying the diversity of empirically observed spatial and temporal responses of lake productivity to DOC and mineral nutrient supply presented in the literature, and provides qualitative predictions for how lake pelagic primary productivity may respond to widespread environmental changes.

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Acknowledgements

This project benefited from National Science Foundation support under award DEB-1552343 to SEJ, and an NSERC Discovery grant to CTS. JAZ was supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award DGE-1313583. We thank B. Weidel for discussions and ideas contributing to this manuscript. We thank S. Diehl and one anonymous reviewer for their extremely helpful comments for improving the model and the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Patrick T. Kelly.

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Kelly, P.T., Solomon, C.T., Zwart, J.A. et al. A Framework for Understanding Variation in Pelagic Gross Primary Production of Lake Ecosystems. Ecosystems 21, 1364–1376 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-018-0226-4

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Keywords

  • gross primary production
  • dissolved organic carbon
  • nutrient loads
  • phytoplankton
  • ecosystem model
  • light limitation