Alpine Lakes in Austria Reflect Climate Change

Mondsee, an Alpine lake in Austria, is one of nine lakes included in a recent study of warming surface water trends. Photo by Martin Dokulil

It’s no longer just a question of whether the planet’s precious lakes are being affected by climate change. The evidence from observations is clear: changes in climate, especially in recent decades, have impacted lakes worldwide.

With warming trends expected to continue, researchers are now turning their attention to predicting how this will affect lakes in the future. A new study of lakes in Austria provides valuable insights.

Austrian Federal Forests, a government agency responsible for the management of 13 Austrian lakes, asked Martin Dokulil, a retired researcher at the University of Innsbruck, to forecast surface water temperatures in nine of the largest of these lakes and to advise about potential impacts.

Dokulil studied historical records and found a rise in summer surface water temperature parallel to air temperature since the mid-1960s. He estimates an average increase in annual lake temperature of about 1 degree Celsius (less than 2 degrees Fahrenheit) during this period. “Increases in air temperature as a result of climate change are mirrored in lake waters where temperatures are also on the rise,” he concluded.

Photo: Neusiedlersee Lake, Austria. Credit: Martin Dokulil.
Neusiedlersee, a shallow lake on the Austria-Hungary border, where researchers are worried about the effects of climate change.

He predicts that lake surface water temperatures are likely to rise by up to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in Austrian Lakes by 2050, depending on the region.

What’s the big deal with seemingly small increases in water temperature? The scientific and conservation communities are concerned because water temperature is one of the key factors affecting vital lake functions, from mixing within the lake to ecological stability and the lake’s water budget.

The concern about warming lake temperatures is not limited to Europe. I’ve been writing a series of posts on the topic of warming lakes, including Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes in North America, and Lake Tanganyika in Africa. Climate change is now considered a major driver affecting the way lake ecosystems function.

Photo: Mondsee Lake, Austria. Credit: Martin Dokulil.
Mondsee, a lake north of the Alps, is one of the Austrian lakes where rising water temperature mirror warming air temperature in the region. Photo by Martin Dokulil

Two of the largest lakes in Austria, Bodensee (Lake Constance) bordering Germany and Neusiedler See (Fertö) bordering Hungary, were included in the study along with Attersee, the largest lake completely in Austria, and Traunsee, the deepest lake. The latter two, along with Mondsee and Wolfgangsee, are part of a lake district north of the Alps. The three largest lakes in a region south of the Alps were also included in Dokulil’s study published online in the journal Hydrobiologia.

Some of the lakes were more affected than others, basically because they are located in different sub-climate zones, Dokulil told me.

“The temperature trends I found are similar in many European lakes and with observations elsewhere in the world,” he explained. “However, lakes in the Alps are perhaps more affected than in other regions of Europe because the air temperature here is increasing at a higher rate.” His findings are consistent with warming trends found in global lake temperature assessments.

A member of the Global Lake Temperature Collaboration, Dokulil said that many of the consequences of the warming trend also correspond to lakes elsewhere. He participated in two European-wide studies, known as REFLECT (Response of European Lakes to Environmental and Climate Change) and CLIME (Climate and Lake Impacts in Europe), which documented the impacts to lakes as a result of climate change.

The ecological status of many lakes in Europe has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, according to the results of the CLIME study published in 2010.

Satellite image of Neusiedlersee. Credit: Martin Dokulil
Satellite image of Neusiedlersee, one of the lakes where algal blooms are expected to increase with changes in climate. Photo courtesy of Martin Dokulil

Researchers acknowledged that many of the changes are the result of human activities in lake watersheds, but some are also driven by changes in the regional climate. Milder and wetter winters are causing increased runoff of nutrients (and other pollutants). When coupled with warmer and calmer European summers, these changes in climate create ideal conditions for promoting algal growth in lakes. Dokulil predicts that Austrian lakes will be affected in similar ways.

“Significant increases in summer temperatures will also affect the carbon cycling in lakes, with potential consequences on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the Earth’s climate,” he added.

The future challenge in Austria and elsewhere is figuring out how to protect and restore the health of lakes in a warming world. Forecasting potential increases in water temperature allows agencies like Federal Forests to better inform and adapt lake restoration and management efforts – an important step in the right direction for finding solutions.

Lisa Borre is a lake conservationist, freelance writer and avid sailor. With her husband, she co-founded LakeNet, a world lakes network, and co-wrote a sailing guide called “The Black Sea” based on their voyage around the sea in 2010. A native of the Great Lakes region, she served as coordinator of the Lake Champlain Basin Program in the 1990s. She is now an active member of the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Lisa Borre is a lake conservationist, writer and avid sailor. A native of the Great Lakes region, she served as coordinator of the Lake Champlain Basin Program in the 1990s and co-founded LakeNet, a world lakes network that was active from 1998-2008. She is now a Senior Research Specialist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and an active member of the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON). She is also on the board of directors of the North American Lake Management Society (NALMS), the advisory council of the Lake Champlain Committee, and an associate investigator with the SAFER Project: Sensing the Americas' Freshwater Ecosystem Risk from Climate Change. She writes about global lake topics for this blog and speaks to local, regional and international groups about the impacts of climate change on lakes and the need to work together to sustainably manage lakes and their watersheds. With her husband, she co-wrote The Black Sea, a sailing guide based on their voyage there in 2010.