SUMMARY 1. Macrophyte abundance and distribution was assessed in a chain of six interconnected lakes (all with the same flooding frequency) in the Arctic, where increasing distance from the Mackenzie River channel resulted in a gradient of water transparency (‘chain-set’ lakes), and in a group of 26 spatially discrete lakes where increasing frequency and duration of lake flooding with river water (controlled by sill height) also resulted in a transparency gradient (‘sill-set’ lakes).
2. Among the chain-set lakes, above-ground macrophyte biomass increased from 0 to 1000 g m−2 with increasing water transparency. Among the sill-set lakes, the transparency gradient among the lakes was less well defined and the relations with biomass were more varied. A decrease in flooding was associated with increasing water transparency and an increasing biomass of macrophytes from about 0 to over 2000 g m−2. For a specific flood frequency, however, the effect of flooding was much greater when lakes were directly connected to a river channel than when floodwaters flowed first through an intervening lake. Among infrequently flooded lakes the effect of flooding on water transparency and biomass was negligible.
3. Among relatively clear lakes in both sets of lakes, biomass increased with increasing water transparency and decreasing lake depth. Among relatively turbid lakes, however, biomass increased with the combined effect of increasing water colour (decreasing water transparency) and increasing lake water depth. The increases in biomass with increasing water colour (coloured dissolved organic matter) and increasing depth, which together result in reduced light at the bed, may be explained by reduced exposure to ultra violet light.
4. An average light attenuation of 1.3 m−1 (Secchi depth about 1 m) over the growing season appears to represent a threshold water transparency which, in combination with water depths early in the growing season, is consistent with a light supply on the bed required for growth of the common macrophytes in lakes of the Mackenzie Delta. However, a comparison with other systems indicates that macrophytes among lakes of the Mackenzie Delta grow deeper, for a given level of transparency, than is reported in lakes at lower latitude, despite the lower sun angles and increased reflectivity of water surfaces in the arctic.
5. A complete accounting of water transparency (at PAR and UV wavelengths), lake depth, summer sun angle and duration of sunlight may be necessary to explain patterns of macrophyte growth among lakes across a full range of latitudes.