Lakes and ponds can range in area from a few square meters to thousands of square kilometers. Temperature is an important abiotic factor affecting living things found in lakes and ponds. During the summer in temperate regions, thermal stratification of deep lakes occurs when the upper layer of water is warmed by the Sun and does not mix with deeper, cooler water. The process produces a sharp transition between the warm water above and cold water beneath. The two layers do not mix until cooling temperatures and winds break down the stratification and the water in the lake mixes from top to bottom. During the period of stratification, most of the productivity occurs in the warm, well-illuminated, upper layer, while dead organisms slowly rain down into the cold, dark layer below where decomposing bacteria and cold-adapted species such as lake trout exist. Like the ocean, lakes and ponds have a photic layer in which photosynthesis can occur. Phytoplankton (algae and cyanobacteria) are found here and provide the base of the food web of lakes and ponds. Zooplankton, such as rotifers and small crustaceans, consume these phytoplankton. At the bottom of lakes and ponds, bacteria in the aphotic zone break down dead organisms that sink to the bottom.
Nitrogen and particularly phosphorus are important limiting nutrients in lakes and ponds. Therefore, they are determining factors in the amount of phytoplankton growth in lakes and ponds. When there is a large input of nitrogen and phosphorus (e.g., from sewage and runoff from fertilized lawns and farms), the growth of algae skyrockets, resulting in a large accumulation of algae called an algal bloom. Algal blooms (Figure 20.31) can become so extensive that they reduce light penetration in water. As a result, the lake or pond becomes aphotic and photosynthetic plants cannot survive. When the algae die and decompose, severe oxygen depletion of the water occurs. Fishes and other organisms that require oxygen are then more likely to die.