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Nutrient concentrations, loading, and N:P stoichiometry (1983 - 2020) and impacts in Flathead Lake (Montana, USA)

Cite this dataset

Elser, James (2022). Nutrient concentrations, loading, and N:P stoichiometry (1983 - 2020) and impacts in Flathead Lake (Montana, USA) [Dataset]. Dryad.


Considerable attention is given to absolute nutrient levels in lakes, rivers, and oceans but less is paid to their relative concentrations, their N:P stoichiometry, and to the consequences of imbalanced stoichiometry. Here we report 38 years of nutrient dynamics in Flathead Lake, a large oligotrophic lake in Montana (USA), and its inflows. While nutrient levels were low, the lake had sustained high total N : total P ratios (TN:TP: 60-90:1 molar) throughout the observation period. N and P loading to the lake as well as loading N:P ratio varied considerably among years but showed no systematic long-term trend. Surprisingly, TN:TP ratios in river inflows were consistently lower than in the lake, suggesting that forms of P in riverine loading are removed preferentially to N. In-lake processes, such as differential sedimentation of P relative to N or accumulation of fixed N in excess of denitrification, likely also operate to maintain the lake’s high TN:TP ratios. Regardless of causes, the lake’s stoichiometric imbalance is manifested in P limitation of phytoplankton growth during early and mid-summer, resulting in high C:P and N:P ratios in suspended particulate matter that propagate P limitation to zooplankton. Finally, the lake’s imbalanced N:P stoichiometry appears to raise the potential for aerobic methane production via metabolism of phosphonate compounds by P-limited microbes. These data highlight the importance of not only absolute N and P levels in aquatic ecosystems but also their stoichiometric balance and call attention to potential management implications of high N:P ratios.


See methods described in published paper.

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National Science Foundation, Award: DEB-1951002

National Science Foundation, Award: DEB-1950963

National Natural Science Foundation of China, Award: 41877415