Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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4.3.7. Lakes

Lakes are particularly vulnerable to changes in climate parameters. Variations in air temperature, precipitation, and other meteorological components directly cause changes in evaporation, water balance, lake level, ice events, hydrochemical and hydrobiological regimes, and the entire lake ecosystem. Under some climatic conditions, lakes may disappear entirely. There are many different types of lakes, classified according to lake formation and origin, the amount of water exchange, hydrochemistry, and so forth.

An important distinction is drawn between closed (endorheic) lakes, with no outflow, and exorheic lakes, which are drained by outflowing rivers. Endorheic lakes are very dependent on the balance of inflows and evaporation and are very sensitive to change in either (whether driven by climate change, climatic variability, or human interventions). This also means that they are very important indicators of climate change and can provide records of past hydroclimatic variability over a large area (e.g., Kilkus, 1998; Obolkin and Potemkin, 1998). Small endorheic lakes are most vulnerable to a change in climate; there are indications that even relatively small changes in inputs can produce large fluctuations in water level (and salinity) in small closed lakes in western North America (Laird et al., 1996).

The largest endorheic lakes in the world are the Caspian and Aral Seas, Lake Balkash, Lake Chad, Lake Titicaca, and the Great Salt Lake. Some of the largest east African lakes, including Lakes Tanganyika and Malawi, also can be regarded as practically endorheic. Changes in inflows to such lakes can have very substantial effects: The Aral Sea, for example, has been significantly reduced by increased abstractions of irrigation water upstream, the Great Salt Lake in the United States has increased in size in recent years as a result of increased precipitation in its catchment, and Qinghai Lake in China has shrunk following a fall in catchment precipitation. Many endorheic lake systems include significant internal thresholds, beyond which change may be very different. Lake Balkash, for example, currently consists of a saline part and a fresh part, connected by a narrow strait. Several rivers discharge into the fresh part, preventing salinization of the entire lake. A reduction in freshwater inflows, however, would change the lake regime and possibly lead to salinization of the freshwater part; this would effectively destroy the major source of water for a large area.

Exorheic lakes also may be sensitive to changes in the amount of inflow and the volume of evaporation. Evidence from Lake Victoria (east Africa), for example, indicates that lake levels may be increased for several years following a short-duration increase in precipitation and inflows. There also may be significant thresholds involving rapid shifts from open to closed lake conditions. Progressive southward expansion of Lake Winnipeg under postglacial isostatic tilting was suppressed by a warm dry climate in the mid-Holocene, when the north basin of the lake became closed (endorheic) and the south basin was dry (Lewis et al., 1998). A trend of progressively moister climates within the past 5,000 years caused a return from closed to open (overflowing) lake conditions in the north basin and rapid flooding of the south basin about 1,000 years later. Other examples include Lake Manitoba, which was dry during the warm mid-Holocene (Teller and Last, 1982). Computations of sustainable lake area under equilibrium water balance (after Bengtsson and Malm, 1997) indicate that a return to dry conditions comparable to the mid-Holocene climate could cause this 24,400-km2 lake draining a vast area from the Rocky Mountains east almost to Lake Superior to become endorheic again (Lewis et al., 1998).

Climate change also is likely to have an effect on lake water quality, through changes in water temperature and the extent and duration of ice cover. These effects are considered in Section 4.3.10.

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