Impact of Changes in the Environmental Conditions on Density Currents and Deep Water Renewal

Changes in climatic conditions and human activities in catchments may affect density currents and thus vertical mixing in lakes. An increase in precipitation and in the percentage of the land made impervious by human development typically leads to a higher discharge of rivers. Enhanced river discharge is usually associated with increased erosion and a higher load of suspended particles in the river water such that density currents will propagate to larger depth. Enhanced deep-water renewal is thus anticipated in freshwater lakes. In saline lakes, however, the increase in freshwater input associated with increased precipitation reduces the density of the surface waters and thus can significantly limit the generation of density currents. Consequently, deep-water renewal may be reduced or suppressed. Deep-water exchange decreased drastically as a consequence of increased riverine discharge in the Caspian Sea and in Mono Lake, CA.

Water storage dams in the catchments of lakes have the opposite effect on density currents than soil sealing. Retention by water storage dams reduces peak discharge and the load of suspended particles in downstream rivers. This results in a decrease in the intensity of density currents and in the depth of intrusions in lakes located downstream of dams.

Climate warming can lead to a reduction of deep-water renewal in lakes because additional input of heat at the lake surface may result in an increase in density stratification of the water column and in an extension of the stratified period. Persistence of the increased stratification over many years likely depends on the lake's latitude and depth and whether warming is intensified in winter or summer or, for tropical lakes, during the monsoon period or during less windy periods.

In a warmer climate, however, mixing in freshwater lakes due to density currents associated with the thermal bar and/or the thermobaric effect may cease, if climate warming leads to an increase in surface water temperature to values above 4 °C all year round, i.e., to values above Tmd. Because density is a nonlinear function of temperature, warming of surface water may also shift the relative importance of turbidity and salinity gradients towards temperature gradients as agent to drive density plumes.

The potential consequences of environmental change on density currents are exemplified for Lake Baikal, the deepest lake on earth. Because of the peculiar temperature profile with the mesothermal temperature maximum (see Figure 7), deep-water renewal in Lake Baikal is predominantly driven by salinity differences between river and lake water and between the basins of the lake. The salinity differences result in density plumes associated with riverine inflows and inter-basin exchange. Hence, changes in the catchments leading to an increase in the concentration of dissolved ions and suspended particles in river inflow will intensify deep-water mixing by density plumes. Climate warming on the other hand will not severely affect density plumes and thus deep-water renewal in Lake Baikal, as long as the lake has an annual ice cover. Higher air temperatures most likely result in a shift of ice break-up to earlier times in the year, but will not have an affect on the thermal conditions immediately after ice break-up. Hence, the conditions required to generate density plumes will not change, but may occur earlier in the season.

In summary, density currents significantly contribute to deep renewal, especially in deep and very deep lakes. The density currents can result from a variety of processes. Which of these processes are relevant in a specific lake depends on the temperature regime of the lake, its salinity and also its morphometry. The environmental conditions, e.g., precipitation in the catchments and heat flux at the lake surface affect the occurrence of density currents and the depth reached by the density plumes. Hence, changes in the environmental conditions will have consequences for deep-water renewal and oxygenation of deep lakes not only because of a change in turbulence levels, but also by their effect on the intensity of density currents.

See also: The Benthic Boundary Layer (in Rivers, Lakes, and Reservoirs); Density Stratification and Stability.

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