Aquatic Ecosystem Responses to Rapid Recovery from Extreme Acidification and Metal Contamination in Lakes Near Wawa, Ontario
In the region northeast of Wawa, Ontario (Canada), many circumneutral lakes downwind of a nearby iron-sintering plant were strongly acidified (pH 3-4) in response to the emissions of large amounts of sulfur dioxide from 1939-1998. Following closure of the plant in 1998, lakewater pH has returned to circumneutral conditions due to the high buffering capacity of the local geological substrate. Prior paleolimnological analyses of dated sediment cores have detected some biological recovery among algal communities (diatoms and chrysophytes), although they have not returned to their pre-impact assemblages. Here we take a broader ecosystem approach, and build upon the algal analyses by examining cladoceran sedimentary assemblages, and spectrally-inferred chlorophyll a and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from the same dated sediment cores. Similar to the algal communities, recent cladoceran sedimentary assemblages from three impacted lakes remain in an altered state relative to the pre-impact period (for example, increased relative abundances of Chydorus brevilabris and reduced cladoceran density in sediments). However, trends in the spectrally-inferred chlorophyll a and DOC were mixed, with long-term decreases in the study lake closest to the plant and long-term increases within the other lakes. Collectively, the multi-proxy paleolimnological analyses of these markedly acidified lakes demonstrate the delayed biological recovery from acidification (and differences in timing) across multiple trophic levels, despite the near-elimination of acid deposition almost a decade previously, which led to a striking recovery in lakewater pH and increased food availability.