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Bimodality and alternative equilibria do not help explain long-term patterns in shallow lake chlorophyll-a

New publication by Davidson, Thomas A.; Sayer, Carl D.; Jeppesen, Erik et al.


Since its inception, the theory of alternative equilibria in shallow lakes has evolved and been applied to an ever wider range of ecological and socioecological systems. The theory posits the existence of two alternative stable states or equilibria, which in shallow lakes are characterised by either clear water with abundant plants or turbid water where phytoplankton dominate. Here, we used data simulations and real-world data sets from Denmark and north-eastern USA (902 lakes in total) to examine the relationship between shallow lake phytoplankton biomass (chlorophyll-a) and nutrient concentrations across a range of timescales. The data simulations demonstrated that three diagnostic tests could reliably identify the presence or absence of alternative equilibria. The real-world data accorded with data simulations where alternative equilibria were absent. Crucially, it was only as the temporal scale of observation increased (>3 years) that a predictable linear relationship between nutrient concentration and chlorophyll-a was evident. Thus, when a longer term perspective is taken, the notion of alternative equilibria is not required to explain the response of chlorophyll-a to nutrient enrichment which questions the utility of the theory for explaining shallow lake response to, and recovery from, eutrophication.