Modelling the effects on phytoplankton communities of changing mixed depth and background extinction coefficient on three contrasting lakes in the English Lake District


J. A. Elliott, Algal Modelling Unit, Lake Ecosystems Group, CEH Lancaster, NERC, Library Avenue, Bailrigg, Lancaster LA1 4AP, U.K. E-mail:


1.  The process-based phytoplankton community model, PROTECH, was used to model the response of algal biomass to a range of mixed layer depths and extinction coefficients for three contrasting lakes: Blelham Tarn (eutrophic), Bassenthwaite Lake (mesotrophic) and Ullswater (oligotrophic).

2. As expected, in most cases biomass and diversity decreased with decreasing light availability caused by increasing the mixed depth and background extinction coefficient. The communities were generally dominated by phytoplankton tolerant of low light. Further, more novel, factors were identified, however.

3. In Blelham Tarn in the second half of the year, biomass and diversity did not generally decline with deeper mixing and the community was dominated by nitrogen-fixing phytoplankton because that nutrient was limiting to growth.

4. In Bassenthwaite Lake, changing mixed depth influenced the retention time so that, as the mixed depth declined, the flushing rate in the mixed layer increased to the point that only fast-growing phytoplankton could dominate.

5. In the oligotrophic Ullswater, changing the mixed depth had a greater effect through nutrient supply rather than light availability. This effect was observed when the mixed layer was relatively shallow (<5.5 m) and the driver for this was that the inflowing nutrients were added to a smaller volume of water, thus increasing nutrient concentrations and algal growth.

6. Therefore, whilst changes in mixed depth generally affect the phytoplankton via commonly recognized factors (light availability, sedimentation rate), it also affected phytoplankton growth and community composition through other important factors such as retention time and nutrient supply.