Maine’s Lakes on Thin Ice

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

The ice-out date for Maine’s Lake Auburn is now three weeks earlier than it was two centuries ago, the Portland Press Herald reports, and other lakes across New England show similar trends. Climate change is not good for ice, and that includes Maine’s lakes that freeze over every winter. As temperatures warm, winters are milder and less snowy, moving up the “ice-out” date when the ice cover of the lake has thawed. It’s also bad news for the fish who live in the lake: chilly lake waters stop algae from growing; warmer waters allow more intense algal blooms to form, sucking up oxygen and killing fish. 

Why This Matters: A disrupted winter with lakes that “defrost” earlier has multiple knock-on effects for freshwater: in addition to harming fish in lakes, the resulting large cyanobacteria algae blooms that form can be harmful to human health. The ice cover is also less predictable overall, making it difficult for species that depend on the specific timing of melting to adapt. Warmer waters cause fish to hatch earlier than the plankton they eat are big enough, leading many to starve. This “environmental mismatch” is playing out around the world as temperatures are more variable and winters become shorter.

Toxic algae a growing problem nationwide

“Environmental conditions are changing faster than many species of fish, particularly native species, can adapt to, and variations in ice cover are part of the problem,” Merry Gallagher, a fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, told the Portland Press HeraldThe issues Maine is facing with less-icy lakes and algae thriving in the warmer temperatures are also happening in other water bodies across the country.

Another factor driving the algae bloom is an increase in phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. These elements occur naturally, but at increased levels can throw ecosystems out of whack. They often enter water bodies with rainfall carrying fertilizer, manure, and city wastewater; the more sporadic, intense rainfall caused by climate change makes this kind of runoff more likely.

  • The Great Lakes have been dealing with harmful algal blooms since the 2000s, especially in Lake Erie. With the lakes spending less time frozen, the ecosystem that exists under the ice during the winter is disrupted, including a type of algae that produces oxygen instead of blocking it. On top of the ecosystem disruption, fertilizer from farms, one of the fuels for algae blooms, is not regulated by the Clean Water Act.
  • The Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary, is also experiencing warmer temperatures increasing algae blooms. But in a promising turn, last year the water body’s dead zone — caused by algae removing oxygen from the water — was the second-smallest since the ‘80s thanks to pollution reduction efforts. 

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