Whither Winter: The Altered Role of Winter for Freshwaters as the Climate Changes

James B. Cotner, Stephen M. Powers, Steven Sadro, Diane McKnight

Research output: Contribution to journalEditorialpeer-review


Our changing climate is having effects on freshwater ecosystems in all seasons, especially winter. High latitude lakes, wetlands, and rivers are experiencing shorter periods of ice cover, and lower latitudes systems that used to freeze are experiencing open water conditions throughout the winter. A 2019 AGU Chapman conference convened aquatic scientists to examine these changes and address the implications of changing winters to aquatic life, chemistry, and physics. Several studies demonstrate decreased ice cover duration than in the past. The removal of an ice “lid” from lakes and rivers impacts the exchange of gases with the atmosphere and the predominant types of metabolism occurring in the waters below, with the potential for more photosynthesis and an increase in oxic versus anoxic metabolism when the lid is removed. Multiple studies indicated an increase in the interannual variability of winters, especially in terms of ice-cover duration and ice quality. Increased variability may simply be an outcome of a more variable winter climate or small differences in environmental conditions such as temperature that can have strong effects on gas exchange, light transmission, and turbulence when ice forms. A question that merits further consideration is whether and how winters of shorter duration and severity will change the dynamics of freshwater systems. Are there memory or legacy effects that carry over to the next season or year? There is much work to be done to understand how changing winters will impact the biogeochemical behavior of lakes and rivers in the coming decades.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2021JG006761
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors appreciate the contributions of all authors and reviewers for this special issue and thank the organizers of the AGU Chapman Conference “Winter Limnology in a Changing World”. A special thanks to Lesley Knoll for providing Figure 1.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.


  • climate
  • ice
  • limnology
  • redox
  • winter


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