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Effects of climate and water use on the ecology of mountain lakes and rivers in the Western United States
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Climate change and over-use of natural resources impacts ecosystems worldwide. Understanding physical impacts from climate and natural resource use on biological processes at multiple scales of spatial and ecological organization is needed to make useful predictions under global change scenarios. Mountain aquatic ecosystems are of particular concern because they are sensitive to climate change, represent hot spots of biodiversity, and they integrate atmospheric, terrestrial and aquatic processes into biological responses. The objective of this dissertation is to quantify physical impacts and biological responses of climate and water use on mountain aquatic ecosystems in the Western United States. In Chapter 1, I developed a data set of ice break-up dates using remote sensing techniques for mountain lakes across the Sierra and Cascade Mountain Ranges coupled with downscaled climate data to quantify drivers of lake ice phenology. I developed a predictive linear mixed effects model and used and ensemble of 15 global climate models to project changes in lake ice break-up dates through the 21st century. The results suggest that low snowpack and increased energy fluxes associated with elevated air temperatures drive earlier ice break-up dates. Projections of ice break-up show that ice break-up will be 61 ± 5 days if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced. In Chapter 2, I analyzed specific ecological responses to earlier ice break-up dates in Castle Lake, California (a natural, sub-alpine lake). I predicted that consumer (Brook Trout; Salvelinus fontinalis) energetics and habitat use would be regulated by either climate driven water temperature or variation in food availability. The data suggest that earlier ice break-up results in a longer duration of surface water temperatures > 15 °C, coupled with decreased and increased food production in the pelagic and littoral zones, respectively. Isotopic and telemetry data showed that consumer resources and habitat use were driven by water temperature and were independent of food availability. In early ice break-up years, consumers grew less because they were thermally excluded from productive littoral zones when water temperatures were warmer for longer periods of time relative to late ice break-up years. In Chapter 3, I demonstrate that decreased streamflow in mountain rivers can reduce abundance and size structure of food supply to drift foraging Rainbow Trout (Onchorhynchus mykiss). In response to changes in streamflow and food availability, trout abandoned their energetically profitable drift foraging strategy and actively searched for prey. The shift in foraging behavior resulted in negative bioenergetic efficiencies in flow impaired sites. Taken collectively this research demonstrates that both predictable and unpredictable consequences of physical change drive biological responses across spatial gradients, ecosystem types, and levels of ecological organization.