A weather station is paired with oxygen sensors in the adjacent lake to measure ecosystem production and respiration.

Carbon cycling in northern lakes


Lakes are hot-spots for carbon storage and transformation, but their net contributions to the carbon cycle are complex and poorly constrained. This project is developing a suite of carbon cycling measurements that will facilitate comparative studies across gradients of trophic state, latitude, climate, and watershed characteristics. To date this project has described patterns of lake carbon cycling across broad geographic scales, and collected new data that explains regional patterns. Current work focuses on bridging-scales to understand how within-lake processes relate to continental-scale patterns.

Project Status


Project Description

Lakes store large amounts of carbon in their sediment, but also emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. These dual roles make lake contributions to the global carbon cycle complex and difficult to constrain. This project aims to develop understanding of how within-lake processes translate to continental-scale patterns of lake carbon cycling. A suite of carbon cycling measurements is being made in Swedish lakes that will facilitate comparative studies across gradients of trophic state, latitude, climate, and watershed characteristics.

Three types of studies are underway:

  1. Detailed measurements of specific aspects of the carbon cycle for small numbers of lakes,
  2. Descriptions of continental-scale patterns based on environmental monitoring data from large numbers of lakes, and
  3. Connections across scales from within-lake processes to continental-scale patterns.

To date, our most important observation is that non-linear relationships create thresholds that cause emergent patterns when evaluating lake carbon cycling at broad geographic scales (Seekell et al. 2018). For example, there are nonlinear relationships among light availability, nutrient concentration, and dissolved organic carbon for lakes in northern Sweden. These nonlinearities create a surprise threshold relationship where inorganic carbon fixation increases with dissolved organic carbon concentration in some regions, but decreases in others (Seekell et al. 2015). These studies are among the first to make such connections across scales, and the overall patterns and specific mechanisms described in these papers have subsequently been validated by independent studies comprising controlled experiments (Vasconcelos et al. 2018), comparative analyses (Diehl et al. 2018), paleo-limnological analyses (McGowan et al. 2018), and mathematical models (Kelly et al. 2018, Vasconcelos et al. 2018).

Long-term patterns of carbon dioxide concentration in a temperate lake. The measurements indicate that the lake is a net source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but with tremendous seasonal variation.

Journal Covers

Journal of Geophysical Research

Selected Media Reports

Press Releases


. Contribution of terrestrial organic matter to fish production in boreal lakes. 2019.


. Wind and trophic status explain within and among-lake variability of algal biomass. Limnology & Oceanography: Letters, 2018.

PDF Code Dataset Project Supplemental Information F1000 Recommendation

. Similarity in spatial structure constrains ecosystem relationships: Building a macroscale understanding of lakes. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 2018.

PDF Code Dataset Project Video Supplemental Information

. A geography of lake carbon cycling. Limnology & Oceanography: Letters, 2018.

PDF Dataset Project Video

. Continental-scale variation in controls of summer CO2 in United States lakes. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 2017.

PDF Dataset Project Journal Cover Supplemental Information

. Long-term pCO2 trends in Adirondack Lakes. Geophysical Research Letters, 2016.

PDF Project

. Climate and landscape influence on indicators of lake carbon cycling through spatial patterns in dissolved organic carbon. Global Change Biology, 2015.

PDF Project

. The influence of dissolved organic carbon on primary production in northern lakes. Limnology & Oceanography, 2015.

PDF Dataset Project Editor's Highlight

. Upscaling carbon dioxide emissions from lakes. Geophysical Research Letters, 2014.

PDF Project

. Regional-scale variation of dissolved organic carbon concentrations in Swedish lakes. Limnology & Oceanography, 2014.

PDF Project

. Resources supporting the food web of a naturally productive lake. Limnology & Oceanography, 2012.

PDF Project