What makes a lake? A lake is a body of standing water (not moving that is). This can include natural lakes (formed by glaciers, oxbows in rivers, or other natural processes) and impoundments, or human made lakes, such as reservoirs and farm ponds. Lakes are a critical part of the environment, serving as the collection point for all of the water that falls in the area that travels down through what’s called the watershed. The watershed is made up of all the streams and rivers that flow into a particular lake.
Lakes are important to people and ecosystems because they:
- Provide critical habitat for fish, wildlife, and tiny water critters.
- Provide a place for sediments to settle and spread out
- Control floods
- Recharge the groundwater
- Provide a recreational area
- Serves as a place of beauty and inspiration for residents and visitors
Lakes get old naturally over time, filling in with sediments, nutrients, plants, and algae. They also become shallower. This aging process usually takes hundreds to thousands of years during which time the lake stays in balance with the regional climate and conditions in the watershed. With human influence, lakes can fill in faster–sometimes in only decades.
Inside the lake environment there are physical, chemical, and biological processes that determine the types and numbers of plants, animals, and tiny organisms that are able to live there. One such process is called “stratification.” During summer, the lake becomes layered with warm water at the surface and cooler water sinking to the bottom. You might notice this when your feet get cold while swimming. Stratification can change the oxygen content, light penetration, and photosynthesis in a lake, all of which affect the entire lake ecosystem.
In the fall, the top layer cools and the lake is all one temperature. Winds mix the water and the lake “turns,” so that winter waters are warmer near the bottom where fish spend the winter, and colder water is near the surface where the lake freezes. In the spring, the lake “turns” again and it begins all over.When looking out at a lake, you might not think that much is going on underneath the surface, but a lot is happening with lake chemistry, stratification and wind mixing, and the aquatic organisms that live there.
Unfortunately, human actions can sometimes change the unique interactions and dynamics of a lake ecosystem. By learning more about lakes, you can help protect them and better understand the processes in and around the lake. Why not get involved in protecting the lake nearest you? You’ll be helping wildlife and your community.