Lake Windermere in the snow
Cumbrian Lakes monitoring platform

Science challenge

Cumbria is home to a World Heritage Site and one of the major lake districts in the UK. The lakes are a defining feature of the landscape, and provide recreational, aesthetic and cultural services that underpin a large tourist industry. Lake ecosystems are extremely sensitive to environmental stressors operating at global, regional and local scales and, as such, are important ‘sentinels’ of environmental change. Lakes are also excellent systems to develop and test ecological theories.

Only through regular monitoring can we distinguish day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year variation from decadal-scale directional change, and provide insights into underlying causes. Our work on these lakes has revealed clear long-term signals of warming, and the introduction of new species. This work also contributes to global climate change assessments, and international collaborations on lake ecology. Our data contributes to the science underpinning the EU Water Framework Directive, the legal framework for the wise management of European lakes.

Project summary

The Cumbrian Lakes monitoring is currently undertaken by UKCEH, having been started by the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA) in 1945 and continued by UKCEH predecessor organisations since 1989. The long-term record for these lakes is the most comprehensive of any in the world. Currently, four lake basins (North and South basins of Windermere, Esthwaite Water, Blelham Tarn) are visited every fortnight and a range of physical, chemical and biological variables are recorded. These lakes also have automatic water quality monitoring stations that deliver high-resolution data on short term changes in the lake environment. Specifically, we gather data on:

  • Physical conditions: water temperature, transparency, above-water meteorology
  • Chemical conditions: pH, alkalinity, concentrations of oxygen and nutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen and silica)
  • Freshwater species: phyto- and zooplankton and (for Windermere) fish populations


  • To detect and attribute the consequences of environmental change for the structure, function and Natural Capital of lakes at a regional scale, by integrating unparalleled multi-decadal manual measurements and cutting-edge high-frequency monitoring
  • To develop process-based understanding that, with models, earth observation and national datasets, can be up-scaled to forecast lake state, remediation and degradation nationally
  • To collect and share high-quality lake ecosystem data with the international freshwater research community, and lead/participate in global scale studies of long-term and episodic change in aquatic ecosystems.


Papers and reports



  • Though not formally part of the UK-SCAPE lake monitoring project, our data are used to validate and test the phytoplankton community model PROTECH.


Research facilities

  • Three automatic water quality monitoring stations making four-minutely measurements of meteorological conditions, surface temperature, oxygen, pH, conductivity, chlorophyll concentrations and cyanobacteria abundance and, depth-profiles of temperature. Data telemetered automatically to a database
  • Automated winch, equipped with sondes that measure lake environmental conditions throughout the water column, and at high temporal resolution. Over just 1 week this winch travels over the equivalent of 8km, gathering 26,400 measurements of in-lake conditions
  • Limnological field equipment, including a remotely operated vehicle and hydroacoustic survey equipment used to study fish spawning habitats and populations
  • Research boats at each site.


UKCEH National Capability

  • Data from the Cumbrian Lakes were used by UKCEH data scientists to develop state-tagging/Quality Assurance approaches, which could then be applied to data across the UK-SCAPE programme
  • We are using Cumbrian Lakes data to develop new analytical approaches for extreme event detection in long-term ecological data, in collaboration with UK-SCAPE and the Ensemble Project
  • A current research collaboration within UK-SCAPE is focused on using these data to develop data integration methods that will enhance our understanding of lake ecosystem change.

UKCEH Co-aligned Research

  • Our long-term research activity on the Cumbrian Lakes has produced data that have been used in major EU projects, such as MARS and REFRESH
  • The Cumbrian Lakes are an important source of water and sediments for experiments conducted at our Aquatic Mesocosm Facility
  • The UKCEH Lake Ecosystems Group are also responsible for the management of the long-running UK Upland Waters Monitoring Network, that includes two Lake District tarns, Scoat Tarn and Burnmoor Tarn.


  • Our lake monitoring contributes to UKCEH’s strong international reputation and has facilitated collaboration in major national and international projects (e.g. WISER, REFRESH, MARS, GLEON, NETLAKE, GloboLakes, Hydroscape and GEISHA). This has led to collaborations with scientists from over 20 countries
  • We use the monitoring platform and data in an annual Lake Ecology MSc module, which we teach in partnership with staff in the Lancaster Environment Centre
  • The monitoring sites are regularly used by PhD researchers recruited through several Doctoral Training Partnerships
  • We welcome the opportunity to collaborate and develop new partnerships. Please get in touch if you would like to work with the Cumbrian Lakes Monitoring Platform.

Project lead - Stephen Thackeray