Assessing the ecological status of candidate reference lakes in Ireland using palaeolimnology.
The European Union (EU) Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires that member states establish type-specific reference conditions for all waterbodies, including freshwater lakes. This presents a problem in those locations where human activity has resulted in significant changes to the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of waterbodies. Seventy-six oligotrophic and meso-oligotrophic [0-19 µg total phosphorus (TP) L-1] lakes thought to be relatively unimpacted by human activity have been nominated as candidate reference lakes (CRL) by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency. This research has used palaeolimnological (lake sediment-based) techniques to test the actual and historical ecological site-specific status of a representative selection of these CRL. Where the temporal record of sedimentation was sufficiently long, the study adopted c. 1850 AD as the primary baseline date for reference conditions. Short sediment cores were obtained from the deepest parts of 35 CRL, and chronologies were established from profiles of spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCP). Twenty-two cores of sediment appeared to date back to c. 1850 on the basis of SCP concentrations. Unless the SCP chronologies suggested otherwise, diatom assemblages present in top and bottom samples from the cores were used as proxies of, respectively, present-day and reference conditions. Past lake water pH (DI-pH) and TP concentration (DI-TP) were inferred from the diatom data. Higher resolution sampling (up to five sediment samples per core) was adopted at seven sites where the SCP-based chronology was more robust and for at least one core from each of the most common types of CRL. Sediment chemistry data were determined to identify possible anthropogenic drivers of the observed changes in the diatom assemblages. Ordination and dissimilarity measures identified the main patterns of variation in the diatom data. Eleven of 34 CRL for which diatom data were available showed little or no change in biological status between core top and bottom samples. Core bottom samples in six of these dated back to pre- or c. 1850 and reference (and high ecological) status could therefore be confirmed in these cases. The estimated age of core bottom samples in the remaining five cores was in the period just after c. 1850 to c. 1950 AD (four cores) or was impossible to determine (one core). Twenty-three (68%) of the CRL sampled showed biologically important deviation from the reference condition, with acidification and nutrient enrichment seemingly the main causes of change. Catchment disturbance, notably peat erosion possibly linked to recent afforestation, also appeared to have been a factor in some cases. Synthesis and applications. This study provides the first systematic examination of changes to water quality in (perceived) pristine lakes over the last c. 150 years for Ireland, and demonstrates the potential of palaeolimnology to support the implementation of the WFD. The results indicate that diatom communities in low alkalinity lakes have been particularly altered, and acidification and nutrient enrichment appear to have been important drivers for some lakes. Furthermore, higher resolution results call into question the validity of applying c. 1850 as the date for reference conditions across Ireland.