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eutrophication

eutrophication (yōtrōˌfĭkāˈshən) [key], aging of a lake by biological enrichment of its water. In a young lake the water is cold and clear, supporting little life. With time, streams draining into the lake introduce nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which encourage the growth of aquatic organisms. As the lake's fertility increases, plant and animal life burgeons, and organic remains begin to be deposited on the lake bottom. Over the centuries, as silt and organic debris pile up, the lake grows shallower and warmer, with warm-water organisms supplanting those that thrive in a cold environment. Marsh plants take root in the shallows and begin to fill in the original lake basin. Eventually the lake gives way to bog, finally disappearing into land. Depending on climate, size of the lake, and other factors, the natural aging of a lake may span thousands of years. However, pollutants from man's activities can radically accelerate the aging process. During the past century, lakes in many parts of the earth have been severely eutrophied by sewage and agricultural and industrial wastes (see water pollution). The prime contaminants are nitrates and phosphates, which act as plant nutrients. They overstimulate the growth of algae, causing unsightly scum and unpleasant odors, and robbing the water of dissolved oxygen vital to other aquatic life. At the same time, other pollutants flowing into a lake may poison whole populations of fish, whose decomposing remains further deplete the water's dissolved oxygen content. In such fashion, a lake can literally choke to death.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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