A century of limnological evolution and interactive threats in the Panama Canal: long-term assessments from a shallow basin.
Large tropical river dam projects are expected to accelerate over the forthcoming decades to satisfy growing demand for energy, irrigation and flood control. When tropical rivers are dammed the immediate impacts are relatively well studied, but the long-term (decades-centuries) consequences of impoundment remain poorly known. We combined historical records of water quality, river flow and climate with a multi-proxy (macrofossils, diatoms, biomarkers and trace elements) palaeoecological approach to reconstruct the limnological evolution of a shallow basin in Gatun Lake (Panama Canal, Panama) and assess the effects of multiple linked factors (river damming, forest flooding, deforestation, invasive species, pollution and hydro-climate) on the study area. Results show that a century after dam construction, species invasion, deforestation and salt intrusions have forced a gradual change in the study basin from a swamp-type environment towards a more saline lake-governed system of benthic-littoral production likely associated with the expansion of macrophyte stands. Hydrology still remains the most important long-term (decades) structural factor stimulating salinity intrusions, primary productivity, deposition of minerals, and reduction of water transparency during wet periods. During dry periods, physical-chemical conditions are in turn linked to clear water and aerobic conditions while nutrients shift to available forms for the aquatic biota in the detrital-rich reductive sediments. Our study suggests that to preserve the natural riverine system functioning of this area of the Panama Canal, management activities must address long-term ecosystem structural drivers such as river flow, runoff patterns and physical-chemical conditions.