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Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Temperature

This figure shows how lakes over 30 feet deep can be divided into three layers during the summer. This figure shows how lakes over 30 feet deep can be divided into three layers during the summer

Dissolved oxygen and temperature are two fundamental measurements of lake productivity. The amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is an important indicator of overall lake health.

For approximately two weeks in the spring and fall, the typical lake is entirely mixed from top to bottom, with all the water in the lake being 4 degrees Celsius. In the winter there is only a few degrees difference between the water under the ice (0 degrees Celsius) and the water on the bottom (4 degrees Celcius). However, in the summer most lakes with sufficient depth (greater than 30 feet) are stratified into three distinct layers of different temperatures. These layers are referred to as the epilimnion (warm surface waters) and hypolimnion (cold bottom waters) which are separated by the metalimnion, or thermocline layer, a stratum of rapidly changing temperature. The physical and chemical changes within these layers influence the cycling of nutrients and other elements within the lake.

During summer stratification the thermocline prevents dissolved oxygen produced by plant photosynthesis in the warm waters of the well-lit epilimnion from reaching the cold dark hypolimnion waters. The hypolimnion only has the dissolved oxygen it acquired during the short two-week spring overturn. This finite oxygen supply is gradually used by the bacteria in the water to decompose the dead plant and animal organic matter that rains down into the hypolimnion from the epilimnion, where it is produced. With no opportunity for re-supply the dissolved oxygen in the hypolimnion waters is gradually exhausted. The greater the supply of organic matter from the epilimnion and the smaller the volume of water in the hypolimnion the more rapid the oxygen depletion in the hypolimnion. Highly productive eutrophic lakes with small hypolimnetic volumes can lose their dissolved oxygen in a matter of a few weeks after spring overturn ends and summer stratification begins. Conversely, low productive oligotrophic lakes with large hypolimnetic volumes can retain high oxygen levels all summer.

When a lake’s hypolimnion dissolved oxygen supply is depleted, significant changes occur in the lake. Fish species like trout and whitefish that require cold water and high dissolved oxygen levels are not able to survive. With no dissolved oxygen in the water the chemistry of the bottom sediments are changed resulting in the release of the plant nutrient phosphorus into the water from the sediments. As a result the phosphorus concentrations in the hypolimnion of productive eutrophic and hypereutrophic lakes can reach extremely high levels. During major summer storms or at fall overturn, this phosphorus can be mixed into the surface waters to produce nuisance algae blooms.

Some eutrophic lakes of moderate depth (25 to 35 feet maximum deep) can stratify, lose their hypolimnion dissolved oxygen and then destratify with each summer storm. So much phosphorus can be brought to the surface water from these temporary stratifications and destratifications that the primary source of phosphorus for the lake is not the watershed but the lake itself in the form of internal loading or recycling.

Besides the typical lake stratification pattern just described, it is now known that some Michigan lakes may not follow this pattern. Small lakes with significant depth, and situated in hilly terrain or protected from strong wind forces, may not completely circulate during spring overturn every year. Additionally, some lakes deep enough to stratify will not, if they have a long fetch oriented to the prevailing wind or are influenced by major incoming river currents. Finally, lakes with significant groundwater inflow may have low dissolved oxygen concentrations due to the influence of the groundwater instead of the lake’s productivity and biological decomposition.

The dissolved oxygen and temperature regime of a lake is important to know in order to develop appropriate management plans. A lake’s oxygen and temperature patterns not only influence the physical and chemical qualities of a lake but the sources and quantities of phosphorus, as well as the types of fish and animal populations.

The above information was taken directly from the 2008 Annual Summary Report of Michigan’s Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program, published by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (Report No. MI/DEQ/WB-09/005).