Understanding and managing the responses of natural systems to climate change requires knowing whether recent changes in ecosystem structure and function are within the bounds of natural variation or whether the systems are entering new states that are unprecedented. Several recent studies of the fossil diatom record of the last ~ 150 years in Andean lakes have shown changes in diatom species composition that suggest changes in lake thermal structure in response to regional climate warming. Yet these paleolimnological records are only a few hundred years in length, so it is unclear whether the systems have entered new states, with potentially severe consequences for ecosystem structure and function, or whether current trends are within the natural variability of the systems. Here, we use a recently compiled diatom database from tropical South America to explore the regional distribution and ecological controls of selected planktic diatom taxa that are associated with warming and changes in the lake thermal structure. We also review published Andean stratigraphic records that span thousands of years to characterize the long-term dynamics of relevant planktic species in response to past climate change. The contemporary data show that many planktic taxa have broad latitudinal and elevational distributions. The distributions of several taxa are correlated with surface water temperature, but most also are correlated with pH and/or conductivity. A review of existing stratigraphic data from Andean lakes demonstrates that rapid changes in diatom abundance, including abrupt increases followed by decades to centuries of near extirpation, are a common mode of population variation for some planktic taxa. Yet the majority of these published paleolimnological investigations are of lakes that are larger and differ in nutrient status and conductivity from the small dilute systems where recent species shifts have been observed. We propose that assessing the resilience of contemporary diatom communities and, by inference, lake ecosystems is best done by generating new records from Andean lakes of varied size and chemistry that span a millennium or more and hence a broader spectrum of climate conditions, coupled with new ecological and biogeographic studies that build upon ongoing research programs in the tropical Andes.
Read the full article in Journal of Paleolimnology.