In experiments lakes 223 (L223) and 302 South (L302S) in the Experimental Lakes Area in north-western Ontario, and Little Rock Lake (LRL) in northern Wisconsin, were progressively acidified with sulphuric acid from original pH values of 6.1–6.8 to 4.7–5.1. Although the lakes were at different locations with different physical settings and assemblages of plants and animals including fish, there were remarkable similarities in their responses, particularly in regard to biogeochemical processes and effects on biota at lower trophic levels.
All three lakes generated an important part of their buffering capacity internally b\ the reduction of sulphate, and to a lesser extent by the reduction of nitrate. Alkalinity production increased as concentrations of biologically-active strong acid anions increased. Models relating the residence times of sulphate and nitrate to water renewal, or first-order kinetics, effectively predicted events.
Acidification disrupted nitrogen cycling in all three lakes. Nitrification was inhibited in L223 and L302S, while in LRL, nitrogen fixation was greatly decreased at low pH.
The phytoplankton communities of all three lakes were originally dominated by chrysophyceans and cryptophyceans. However acidification changed the dominant species and decreased diversity. Acidification tended to increase phytoplankton production and standing crop slightly, probably because light penetration was increased.
Littoral zones of all three lakes became increasingly dominated by a few species of filamentous green algae, which created nuisance blooms by pH 5.6. Mats or clouds of algae changed the entire character of the littoral zone.
Acidification of L223 and L302S caused the loss of several species of large benthic crustaceans as pH changed from 6 to 5.6. Large, acid-sensitive littoral crustaceans were absent from LRL before acidification, probably because the lake was already too acidic.
As acidity increased, the dominance of cladocerans within zooplankton communities increased. Daphnia catawba appeared at pH values near 5.6 and became more abundant at lower pHs as the lakes were acidified. Its appearance coincided with a decline in other Daphnia species: another cladoceran, Bosmina longirostris, increased in the experimentally-acidified lakes as did Keratella taurocephala: they became the dominant rotifers. Several sensitive zooplankton species declined or disappeared as the lakes were acidified, most notably Daphnia galeata mendotae, Epischura lacustris, Diaptomus sicilis and Keratella cochlearis.
The responses of different fish varied; they appeared to depend on the sensitivity of key organisms in the food chain. The ability of key fish species to reproduce was impaired as early as pH 5.8; their reproduction, except for yellow perch in LRL, had ceased at pH 5.0 in all the three lakes.
Acidification consistently reduced the diversity and richness of species in taxonomic groups studied, these effects resulting from losses of species and the increased dominance of a few acidophilic taxa.
Responses of experimentally-acidified lakes in north-western Ontario and atmospherically-acidified lakes in eastern Ontario were similar in most respects where records allowed comparisons to be made, notably in relation to biogeochemical processes and the disappearance of acid-sensitive biota.
When the acidification of L223 was reversed, several biotic components recovered quickly. Fish resumed reproduction at pHs similar to those at which it ceased when the lake was being acidified. The condition of lake trout improved as a result of greatly increased populations of small fish, their prey. Many species of insects and crustaceans that had been extirpated by acidification returned. Assemblages of phytoplankton and chironomids have retained an acidophilic character, although their diversity during recovery is similar to that at comparable pHs during progressive acidification. As their chemistry recovered, atmospherically-acidified lakes in the Sudbury area were able to sustain recruitment by species offish, including lake trout and white sucker, with rapid increases in the diversity of invertebrate taxa. Results from both L223 and lakes near Sudbury suggest a rapid partial recovery of lacustrine communities when acidification is reversed.
It is concluded that the experimental lakes responded similarly to acidification, and that experimental acidification can reliably indicate the effects of acidification attributable to acidic precipitation.