Evolution of stream and lake water temperature under climate change

Michel, Adrien; Råman Vinnå, Love; Bouffard, Damien; Epting, Jannis; Huwald, Hendrik; Schaefli, Bettina; Schmid, Martin; Wüest, Alfred (2021). Evolution of stream and lake water temperature under climate change FOEN, Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU) 10.16904/envidat.207

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This report presents past observations and projects the future development of water temperature
in Swiss lakes and rivers. Projections are made until the end of the 21 st century using the CH2018
climate scenarios. Besides climate change effects on temperature, we also discuss effects on
discharge for rivers, and effects on the thermal structure, and specifically the seasonal mixing
regime and ice cover of lakes.
Observations over the past 40 years show a clear increase in river temperatures, with a mean
trend of 0.33 ± 0.03 °C per decade, corresponding to ~80% of the observed air temperature trend.
This warming has been continuous over the last four decades and impacts the health of stream
ecosystems (e.g. by favouring the spread of fish diseases) and their services (e.g., the water
usage for industrial cooling). The temperature rise is more pronounced in the Swiss Plateau than
in the Alps, where snow and glacier melt partially mitigates (for now) the effects of increasing air
temperature. Conversely, annual average discharge shows no significant trend.
Similar trends have also been reported for Swiss lakes with mean summer lake surface
temperature increasing by 0.40 ± 0.08 °C per decade since the 1950s. This warming trend affects
lake stratification. Warm periods may for instance increase the occurrence of deep-water anoxic
conditions, as observed during the 2003 heat wave in Lake Zurich. In mild winters, ice cover
duration is reduced in alpine lakes, and winter deep mixing is less intense in large-peri-alpine
lakes. The mild winter 2006/7 limited, for instance, the seasonal mixing of Lake Constance to
about 60 m depths. Effects of warming on lake thermal structure vary within and between regions,
due to both lake and watershed characteristics as well as regional climate change patterns.
We simulated the future evolution of stream temperature for 10 catchments in Switzerland for a
historical reference period (1990–2000) and two future periods: 2055–2065 (mid-century) and
2080–2090 (end of the century). Results show that the temperature will stabilize by the end of the
century for the RCP2.6 scenario (strong CO2 emission reduction), whereas the warming will
accelerate with time for the RCP8.5 scenario (business as usual scenario). This expected
warming will have significant impacts on the stream ecosystems. Alpine and lowland catchments
will experience a similar annual mean temperature increase but display different seasonal effects.
While Swiss Plateau rivers will become warmer both in winter and summer (but more in summer),
alpine rivers will experience almost no warming in winter but a strong warming exceeding that of
air temperature in summer. This is explained by an abrupt decrease in discharge, and by the soil
warming resulting from the absence of snow and thus a lower albedo.
Lake temperature projections are based on one-dimensional, vertically resolved, hydrodynamic
simulations for 29 lakes. The simulated lakes cover a wide range of sizes, depths and water
quality, and an altitude range from 200 to 1800 m a.s.l. Simulations indicate substantial changes
in lake thermal structure for RCP8.5 with surface temperatures increasing on average by 3.3 °C
at the end of the 21 st century. This increase is limited to 0.9 °C in the mitigation scenario RCP2.6.
We identified an altitude-dependent evolution of the durations of summer and winter stratification
as well the ice-covered period. Larger changes in stratification duration are expected to occur at
higher altitude lakes. Yet, these lakes will still maintain winter stratification and a shortened ice-
covered period while lower altitude lakes (below ~1500 m a.s.l.) risk drastic changes in the mixing
regime. e.g., a complete loss of the ice cover and winter stratification under the RCP8.5 scenarios.
Such changes in the mixing regime may strongly impact lake ecosystems. These low to mid
altitude lakes may therefore be considered as the most vulnerable to climate change

Item Type:

Report (Report)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography > Physical Geography > Unit Hydrology
10 Strategic Research Centers > Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research (OCCR)
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography > Physical Geography

UniBE Contributor:

Schaefli, Bettina


900 History > 910 Geography & travel


FOEN, Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU)




Bettina Schäfli

Date Deposited:

27 Apr 2022 15:09

Last Modified:

27 Apr 2022 15:09

Publisher DOI:






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