Acid rain recovery may help to mitigate the impacts of climate change on thermally sensitive fish in lakes across eastern North America

Dana R. Warren, Clifford E. Kraft, Daniel C. Josephson, Charles T. Driscoll

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


From the 1970s to 1990s, more stringent air quality regulations were implemented across North America and Europe to reduce chemical emissions that contribute to acid rain. Surface water pH slowly increased during the following decades, but biological recovery lagged behind chemical recovery. Fortunately, this situation is changing. In the past few years, northeastern US fish populations have begun to recover in lakes that were historically incapable of sustaining wild fish due to acidic conditions. As lake ecosystems across the eastern United States recover from acid deposition, the stress to the most susceptible populations of native coldwater fish appears to be shifting from acidification effects to thermal impacts associated with changing climate. Extreme summer temperature events – which are expected to occur with increasing frequency in the coming century – can stress and ultimately kill native coldwater fish in lakes where thermal stratification is absent or highly limited. Based on data from northeastern North America, we argue that recovery from acid deposition has the potential to improve the resilience of coldwater fish populations in some lakes to impacts of climate change. This will occur as the amount of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in the water increases with increasing lake pH. Increased DOC will reduce water clarity and lead to shallower and more persistent lake thermoclines that can provide larger areas of coldwater thermal refuge habitat. Recovery from acidification will not eliminate the threat of climate change to coldwater fish, but secondary effects of acid recovery may improve the resistance of coldwater fish populations in lakes to the effects of elevated summer temperatures in historically acidified ecosystems. This analysis highlights the importance of considering the legacy of past ecosystem impacts and how recovery or persistence of those effects may interact with climate change impacts on biota in the coming decades.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2149-2153
Number of pages5
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2017


  • Salvelinus fontinalis
  • acid deposition
  • acid rain
  • acid rain recovery
  • brook trout
  • climate change
  • coldwater fish
  • lake stratification
  • thermocline
  • water clarity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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