Diatom Community Responses to Water Quality Improvements in Lakes Recovering From Acidification and Metal-Contamination Near Wawa, Ontario, Canada: a Paleolimnological Perspective
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In response to sulphur dioxide emission reductions in North America and Europe, there has been a recent shift in research focus towards understanding ecosystem recovery. Evidence for reversibility in the effects of acidification on lake ecosystems within North America has been, for the most part, constrained to a single locality (Sudbury, Ontario). Lakes in a fume-kill area near Wawa, Ontario, present a new and rare opportunity for studying potentially rapid chemical and biological recovery patterns from extreme acidification. Several lakes acidified (pH ~3) during a period of local iron sintering from 1939 to 1998, and although minimal historical data are available, striking biological recovery has recently been observed. This study used paleolimnological techniques to track diatom (class Bacillariophyceae) responses to historical water quality changes in five fume-kill lakes near Wawa. Prior to the onset of iron sintering, the sediment-recorded diatom assemblages were dominated by species that are typically found in circumneutral or slightly alkaline lakes. Following the known occurrence of lake acidification, there was a striking shift in the sediment record towards dominance by acid- and metal-tolerant species. Water quality of the fume-kill lakes has since improved (i.e. pH has increased from ~3 to ~7 and metal concentrations have decreased). In four of the five lake cores, this was reflected by a decrease in the relative abundance of acid-tolerant species. Surprisingly, diatom communities were not progressing towards pre-disturbance species assemblages. Factors impeding the return of native species might include metal enrichment in surface sediment and potentially altered lake thermal regimes. Documenting and understanding recovery trajectories is necessary to help lake managers evaluate policy decisions regarding the efficacy of emission reduction programs and mitigation measures. This thesis provides evidence from one location in addition to Sudbury that the ecological effects of severe lake acidification can be reversed if SO2 emissions are sufficiently reduced. It also further demonstrates the complexity of recovery patterns in acidified and metal-contaminated lakes.