Re-browning of Sudbury (Ontario, Canada) lakes now approaches pre-acid deposition lake-water dissolved organic carbon levels

Since the implementation of large-scale lake monitoring in the ~1980s, water color and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations have increased in many northern lakes (i.e., lake browning), impacting the functioning of aquatic ecosystems. In regions that formerly experienced high levels of acid deposition, this browning trend has been largely attributed to the recovery from the impacts of past acid deposition. However, the extent to which DOC levels have now returned to naturally higher, pre-industrial conditions is still poorly understood. In this study, we assessed whether DOC levels are still influenced by acid deposition in lakes near Sudbury, Ontario, a region that has been heavily affected by sulfur dioxide emissions from local metal smelting during the 20th century. We analyzed water chemistry monitoring data (1981-2018), together with comparisons between modern and pre-industrial DOC levels inferred from sediment spectroscopy, for 51 acid-sensitive and 24 buffered reference lakes across the Sudbury landscape. Since 1981, DOC concentrations doubled in acid-sensitive lakes, with a mean increase of +1.6 mg/L, whereas in more buffered reference lakes, mean DOC levels increased by only 0.8 mg/L. Similarly, sediment-inferred DOC trends indicate that current DOC levels are, on average, ~22% below pre-industrial levels in acid sensitive systems compared to only ~10% in buffered lakes. Weakening correlations between DOC and acidification-related water chemistry variables (e.g., pH, alkalinity, metals) further indicate a diminishing influence of acid deposition on DOC in Sudbury lakes. These results highlight the strong impact that acid deposition has historically had on lake-water DOC dynamics in this region, but also suggest that DOC levels are approaching natural baseline levels in less acid-sensitive lakes, and that other drivers, such as changes in climate or vegetation cover, are now becoming the dominant controls on changes in DOC concentrations.