So we packed our girls and our gear into the car, and off we went, driving almost 400 miles to get to the place we would stay, the Rainbow Lodge. The last hour or so of driving took place on unpaved dirt roads with the silent pine forest pressing closely around, and we were somewhat relieved to reach the lodge, which was a hodge-podge of buildings in a small clearing. What I remember most about the place itself was the flock of evening grosbeaks in residence there, some of the most gregarious and charming birds I have ever seen. Their dramatic coloring seemed startlingly out of place against the cool greens and browns of the jack pine forest.
Our trip on the river was lovely, mysterious, and challenging. No rapids or fast water that I recall, but it was twisty and turny the entire way. It seemed as though we were the only people on the entire length of the river; at least I don’t recall encountering anyone else. And so for a little while we could indulge our fantasy of being on a river as unspoiled as it could have been hundreds of years ago. We saw at least one great blue heron before we startled it into flight, as well as several king birds if I recall correctly. We hoped to see signs of black bears but we probably were lucky that we did not. I found it exhilarating to be on this remote river, with no way out except for the one we were following.
For us the journey was only a few hours long. The girls grumbled, because it was cold and rainy, as were most of our camping/canoe trips. But it was clearly memorable for me, since I can recall these details after such a gap in time and experience.
I have gone on about this at length in the hopes of conveying some of the wonder that lingered after so many years. The impact the experience had on me might help explain my shock and dismay to learn of the forest fire last May that lay waste to this very part of the Upper Peninsula. Among the 136 structures destroyed in the fire, in the 21,000 acres (about 33 square miles) that were burned over, were all of those of the Rainbow Lodge.
Why such a fire, in the Upper Peninsula of all places? Why should an area bordering the second-largest freshwater lake in the world be at risk?
Those of us resident in the upper Midwest/Great Lakes region may well recall how strange and disruptive the weather was last year, during the winter and spring of 2012. We had moderate drought conditions throughout the state, following several years of below-normal precipitation. In the UP, an unusually warm and dry spring produced conditions suitable for a fire, and some lightning did the rest.
In the southern part of the state last spring, the biggest effects were felt by the orchardists and those who love their Michigan fruit. In March, we had unseasonably warm temperatures, several days in the 80s. Naturally, the trees responded to the warmth by budding; just as naturally, those high temps didn’t last, and the heavy frosts that followed killed off almost all the tree fruit crop across the state for the entire season. No cherries to speak of, especially not tart ones; no local peaches, pears, plums or apricots; few apples. For a state as heavily agricultural as Michigan—we’re #1 in tart cherries, #3 in apples nationwide—this was a big blow. Most orchards lost 90% of their crops, with little if any insurance to help tide them over. Seventy-two (out of 83) counties were eventually declared disaster areas, which permitted the growers to apply for low-interest federal loans. Estimated loss to the growers started at $225 million; most years the apple crop production and marketing cycle alone adds as much as $900 million to the state’s economy.
So what? climate change deniers would say. Any year can be a bad one. That is true, but unfortunately we do now have the data to support the hypothesis that the Great Lakes region is also experiencing many serious effects that can be attributed only to anthropomorphic climate change. Last year’s prematurely warm spring is not merely a one-off, in other words, but a disturbing portent of climate disasters yet to come.
Michigan has a unique geographical profile. You can tell Michigan natives (from the Lower Peninsula, that is) by their response to the question of where they are from: they’ll hold up their left hand, with its back facing the speaker, and point at the approximate spot. That’s because the lakes that define the Lower Peninsula—mostly Lakes Michigan and Huron, with a smidgin of coastline from Lakes St. Clair and Erie (and the Detroit and St. Mary's Rivers) in the far SE corner—outline this distinctive mitten shape we have come to call home. I'm sure I'm not alone in my delight to see the outline of Michigan so readily identifiable in photos taken from space.
Besides giving us Michiganders an easily locatable place on the globe, the Great Lakes provide many other underacknowledged benefits to Michiganders and others in the Great Lakes region. On the macro scale, the lakes moderate the severity of the weather and climate, which would tend to be much more extreme without them, given our mid-continental location. The Great Lakes basin contains more than 90% of the fresh water in the United States, which provides water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, industry, and recreation for over 35 million residents alone, or over ten percent of the U.S. population, at a rate of 56 billion gallons every day.
There are a few advantages to being a long-time resident of the same place. I have always lived within about 50 miles or so from my birthplace, Detroit, and over the 45 years or so of my own conscious memory, I can list several different instances that point to climate change impacts. I'll list some of them here, comparing old norms to current ones and providing most recent data and predictions.
Growing Season Longer Now
Then: Flowers did not bloom in profusion by May Day.
Now: Flowers bloom from early April forward, and I don't think that's merely an artifact of increased flower growing in my neighborhoods. There are other humble indications of increasingly mild winters in my own garden. Some crops, like kale, do better after frost. This past winter, kale and a few other plants survived the whole frost season.
Officially: Based on changes in minimum temperatures, the USDA hardiness zone for my local area has been changed from a 5 to a 6a, which indicates a rise in the lowest average temperature of at least 5 degrees F.
Snow/Ice Levels Declining Now
Then: When I was young, we really did have more snow for longer stretches of time, and the winters were colder. The blizzards of 1974 and 1978, when I was a college student in East Lansing, haven't been approximated since. The coldest temperature recorded in Detroit occurred on January 21, 1984; almost a year later, the day of my older daughter's birth, the windchill was 50 below.
Now: Unlike the East Coast in recent years, here we have had lighter, shorter snowfalls and less seasonal accumulation in the winter. I know we have had less and less snow because I rarely have the chance to do any cross-country skiing any more. If it snows now, I know I'd better get out there quick before it all melts.
Officially: Total average snowfall for Michigan is a difficult measure to calculate, given the big area of the state and its large extent, north to south. Snowfall varies east to west, too, due to lake effects and urban heat sinks. But another way to see the difference in winter temperatures and precipitation is to look at changes in the ice cover on the Great Lakes. Here is an unnerving comparison from March, 2012 (with more information available in an article published in the Journal of Climate, cited below):
Winter ice cover on the Great Lakes has dropped dramatically over the past four decades, according to a new report. Peak ice has dropped by 71 percent on average, with Lake Michigan ice decreasing by even more.
Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration compared satellite photos going back to 1973. Jia Wang, an ice climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the changes are stark. In a year like 1979, ice covered about 94 percent of the lakes in the dead of winter.
“This winter the maximum ice cover is about 5 percent,” Wang said. “It’s the lowest ever since the satellite era.”
Then: When I was a child, we did not have AC in my house, neither central nor room units. Summers were hot, but my father had installed an attic fan which pulled through air and sent it out of the house, and nights were tolerable even in the worst heat waves.
Now: It's harder to tolerate the summer heat, which has tended to come on earlier (July, rather than August). Last year, we installed room AC units in our first-floor office and second-floor bedroom; we couldn't handle the heat otherwise. That's the first time I've actively chosen to have AC in my house.
Officially: According to a recent analysis published by the Union of Concerned Scientists,
The city now has 3.5 more days of the hottest and most humid weather each summer than in the late 1950s, on average. Detroit also faces three additional hot, dry days each summer, for a total of more than six extra days of dangerous hot weather compared with 50 years ago. Meanwhile the city now gets significantly less relief from the heat, as it sees more than 10 fewer cool, dry days per summer, on average.Increased Rainfall Now
Nighttime cooling is critical for reducing heat stress from higher daytime temperatures. However, temperatures on hot, dry nights have increased by 4.3°F per summer, on average. Hot, humid nights have not only become hotter but also more humid, with dew point temperatures rising by 2.5°F.
Detroit now has two more heat waves—three or more consecutive days with dangerously hot air masses—each year, on average.
Then: I must admit, SE Michigan has never within my living memory been a place known for its clear, sunny skies. We've always had, as far as I can tell, more than enough cloud cover and rain.
Now: Despite a few serious drought years in the last decade or so of the 20th century, we've avoided the persistent downturn in precipitation that has affected most of the rest of the Midwest and South. But as with the snowfall, it's been different from usual patterns. In our microclimate we have had more precipitation over the year but less heavy snowfall; this is also true for most of the rest of the state. Thus, for example, Michigan farmers had a slow and late planting this year of corn, due to soggy fields in the spring.
Officially: Among the many woes besetting Detroit, one of the worst for the city and the region is the significant increase in rainfall, something that frequently overwhelms the city's waste water purification system. A report in Scientific American's Daily Climate section in the August 27, 2013 edition notes:
Rain from heavy, flood-causing storms has jumped 45 percent across the Midwest the past five decades, according to federal scientists. Greenhouse gases increase the energy in the atmosphere and tend to concentrate storms. Southeast Michigan, thanks to a quirk of atmospheric currents and geography, has been hard hit: Annual precipitation has increased 10 to 15 percent in and around Detroit the past 30 years.I used to think that the Great Lakes would always continue to serve as an inexhaustible buffer for us here in Michigan, their size and volume continuing to temper the impact of climate change. But more recently, I have come to understand that our wonderful lakes are just as much at risk as any other ecosystem on the planet.
There hasn't been much good news to report about the health and stability of the Great Lakes in recent years. The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, names several categories of threats to the Lakes, including invasive species, both plant and animal. I recall them being a problem from my childhood, when the alewives arrived; earlier, the truly ugly and destructive sea lamprey achieved access to the Basin and decimated the Lake Superior trout population. Recently, we endured the serious impact of zebra and quagga mussels, which have displaced most of the indigenous fresh-water mussel species, devastated local salmon populations, and negatively affected waste water systems throughout the Basin. Currently, the biggest problems appear to be presented by invasive plants, including a non-native variety of phragmites, a kind of wetland reed, that can quickly dominate a locale and push out the native species of reed and others as well. Most of us also know about the prospect of another exotic fish invasion, this time by the Asian Carp, via the Chicago River channel and other access points to Lake Michigan. It might already have established a foothold in the lake, presenting another major challenge eventually to the multi-billion dollar fishing industry of the Basin.
However, all these threats are minimal in comparison to that presented by climate change.
Muskegon Critic, a Kossack and a life-long Michigan resident who lives near Lake Michigan, has done a great public service at this site by reporting frequently on the many disturbing pieces of evidence of climate change impact on the Great Lakes. Among the most serious signs of trouble are decreased lake levels, which mean of course decreased lake volume. In a diary from late 2012, “Climate Change is Evaporating the Things we Love - Great Lakes at Historic Lows,” Muskegon Critic reported on a then-recent interview published first in Bridge Magazine with a local expert on Great Lakes hydrology. Dr. Alan Steinman, director of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University, stated:
[Dredging] does contribute a couple of inches to the low water levels, but most of it was attributable to changes we’ve had in the climate in the last 15-20 years. There’s been more evaporation and less precipitation, and when you look at that cumulatively that results in lower water levels.FishOutofWater, a Kossack who is a PhD geochemist, also reports regularly on climate change impact on water, and sometimes on Great Lakes issues in particular. One of his diaries from early this year on the same topic, “Lakes Michigan & Huron at Record Low Levels,” is well worth revisiting for his technical but readable analysis, including several interesting but troubling graphs that effectively elucidate the problem. He concludes:
As far as the implications, it depends on what sector you’re looking at. If you’re looking at the ecological factors, the habitats that are most at risk are our coastal wetlands. And those are critical habitats for our fish and wildlife populations, and they also serve to filter out nutrients from the watersheds before they reach the Great Lakes. So, some critical concerns there.
Then you can look at the economic impacts. When we talk about our marinas, there are going to be slips that will no longer be able to hold boats because the draft has been reduced so much. There may be connecting waterways that may be affected, too. If you look at our commercial vessels, they’ll have to light-load because there’s no longer enough draft to get in and out of these channels. That has a huge economic impact. Hydroelectric facilities with intake pipes that go into the water might be sucking air.
Increasing evaporation rates tied to warming water and air temperatures are lowering lake levels.Thanks to the relatively rainy spring and early summer we have had this year that I mentioned above, the water levels have rebounded a little, but they are still pretty far below the mean. (If you're interested in very fine detail, here's a fascinating page with daily updates on lake levels, sponsored by the GLERL.)
Warmer than desirable water temperatures are also believed to be a contributing factor in one of the worst climate disasters in Michigan during 2012, the die-off of hundreds of loons in Lake Michigan. A summary on MLive.com of ten significant climate catastrophes in the state last year includes this description of the likely causes of the bird deaths:
In the summer and fall of 2012, hundreds of dead loons wash up along the shore of this Leelanau County national lakeshore park. Hundreds more litter the Upper Peninsula shoreline on the northern side of Lake Michigan. Other dead water birds are found as well, including horned grebes, long-tailed ducks, cormorants, herring gulls and red-breasted and common mergansers. Wildlife experts believe the die-offs – which happened in 2006 and 2007 as well – are tied to complex interaction linked to invasive species and changes in water temperature and water levels that are possibly attributable, at least in part, to climate change. According to this analysis, invasive zebra mussels filter Lake Michigan's water, allowing an algae called cladophora to bloom. As the algae settles to the bottom, it stimulates growth of a toxin called Type E bolulism [sic]. The botulism works its way up the food chain and is eaten by fish including the invasive round goby, which in turn is eaten by water birds. The birds die when they can no longer hold their heads out of the water. A National Park Services ecologist ties the outbreaks to years of low lake levels and higher spring and summer water temperatures.Here is some footage of a loon on Clear Lake in the UP. The best segment ends at about 1:47.
So far, the impact of climate change on Michigan's people has been less bad than it could have been, and yet it has already been bad enough. Thousands of people have already been affected by fires, crop losses, and flooding. Fortunately, the potentially large numbers of deaths due to heat waves has not materialized, thanks in part to the efforts of local officials, especially in Detroit, to provide cooling shelters during 90+ degree days. Of course, that is small consolation to the family members of people whose deaths were directly attributable to the heat waves of the past few years.
Effective countermeasures for the time being do appear to depend on the good will and engagement of activists and their organizations, a few of which I list below. But more systematic interventions appear to be essential, no less so here than in any other part of the country, the continent, or the globe.
Even in the midst of this freshwater bounty, we are not exempt from the effects of heat, drought, and extreme weather. Just as the Lakes have nurtured and sustained humans for millenia, now it is up to us to nurture and sustain them.
To the extent that this blogathon is effective, it will be because it encourages people to take the actions they can, whenever and however they can, to safeguard people's lives and health, short term and long. There are groups to join that are eager for your participation, no matter how limited it might be. Please check out these resources, and feel free to supplement this list in the comment thread below.
Activist Organizations (partial list!)
Their mission statement: "Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice works with communities to create cleaner, healthier and safer neighborhoods."
Nothing on the website says so, but I suspect that DWEJ emerged from the effort to stop the Incinerator project that has been polluting the nearby area since 1991. Not coincidentally, Detroit ranks 27th of 27 major U.S. and Canadian cities according to a recent report by Siemens called the Green City Index (see page 29 of the report).
DWEJ notes also:
Historically, minority and low-income populations have suffered disproportionately from environmental pollution, often because they have the least capacity to respond. DWEJ is dedicated to empowering urban residents to take a meaningful role in the decision-making process surrounding environmental concerns in their own communities.One of the DWEJ's major projects right now is the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative, a coalition of environmental, legal, academic, governmental, scientific, business, health and other organizations with an interest in helping Detroit address the climate challenges we now face.
They're a good group, worth checking out to support, contribute to, and/or volunteer with.
National Wildlife Federation--Great Lakes Regional Center
This chapter of the NWF focuses on Great Lakes issues, and front and center for them right now is drawing attention to the oil pipelines that criss-cross the state, carrying grave risks to our waterways and to our health generally. Enbridge, the pipeline company that brought us the billion-gallon dilbit spill on the Kalamazoo River in 2010, is seeking to expand carrying capacity to handle tar sands oil. Here's a link to their Enbridge Action page, which entails contacting your U.S. senators to express your opposition.
That's only a part of the NWF's current agenda. Check them out if you have a chance.
Sierra Club--Michigan Chapter
One prominent agenda item now for the Michigan group is to get out ahead of fracking, which is an imminent threat in many areas of the state. I am opposed on principle to fracking anywhere, but to think that it's being contemplated in Michigan, with its network of lakes, rivers and wetlands, boggles the mind. Obviously the industry's thought is that there are plenty of deposits to tap, and the water is here to do it. Our job is to stop them. Here's the link to their information page on stopping fracking in the state.
Healing Our Waters--Great Lakes Coalition
Healing Our Waters is a coalition of
more than 120 environmental, conservation, and outdoor recreation organizations, zoos, aquariums and museums. Our member organizations represent millions of people who share a common goal of restoring and protecting North America’s greatest freshwater resource, the Great Lakes.Led by the National Wildlife Federation and the National Parks Conservation Association, part of their mission is to ensure a strong political presence at the state and federal level regarding Great Lakes concerns. It claims credit for passing and funding the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, endorsed by then-candidate Obama in 2008, passed by the U.S. Congress, funded at $475 million, and signed into law by President Obama in 2009.
The coalition reflects a growing public awareness of the urgent need to restore the health of the Great Lakes, which are essential to the economic and cultural identity of our region.
They have extensive coverage of the sessions at the just-concluded Great Lakes Week (9th annual event: Sept. 9-13, Milwaukee WI)--see below--with brief reports on the sessions. One, "A Pipeline Runs Through It," provides a brief but rousing condemnation of the Enbridge proposals to expand oil pipelines through the region.
Information Resources for the Great Lakes
Lisa M. Appel, et al. Explore Our Natural World: A Biodiversity Atlas of the Lake Huron to the Lake Erie Corridor. U.S Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes National Program Office to the Wildlife Habitat Council. 2002.
A beautiful atlas of its type, drawing on the expertise and devotion of many people and communities, including the indigenous community on Walpole Island, or Bkejwanong.
The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book. Government of Canada and United States Environmental Protection Agency. Third Edition, 1995.
An older atlas covering the whole Great Lakes Basin. Also includes information about governmental agencies responsible for resource management and protection.
Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (of the NOAA).
Very cool, very comprehensive resource for current and historical data on a whole host of matters related to the Great Lakes. Fun for surfing and hugely informative.
Great Lakes Information Network (GLIN)
From their Overview:
The Great Lakes Information Network (GLIN) is a partnership that provides one place online for people to find information relating to the binational Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region of North America. GLIN offers a wealth of data and information about the region's environment, economy, tourism, education and more.Interesting resource about all these topics; worth bookmarking.
Great Lakes Echo
A project of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, the Echo seeks to
foster and serve a news community defined by proximity to and interest in the environment of the Great Lakes watershed. We use traditional news reporting methods but also push the frontiers of journalism to harness the knowledge, interests, skills and energy of that community.Cursory review shows some good and thorough coverage, for example, an audio report on one of the hot topics from Great Lakes Week--a request for water diversion to Waukesha WI (of all places). Is this the camel's nose in the tent? Worth bookmarking and following.
Great Lakes Now
A news aggregator sponsored by Detroit Public TV about all reportage available related to the Great Lakes. Currently the big news concerns the outcome of Great Lakes Week, see below.
More than 600 environmentalists, business leaders, scientists, industry representatives, and civic leaders from United States and Canada are gathering in Milwaukee to attend Great Lakes Week, which kicks off today....
The gathering comes at a critical juncture for the Great Lakes and for the 30 million people who live in the region and depend on them for drinking water. Federal funding from the U.S. Congress for Great Lakes restoration is threatened by fiscal constraints in Washington. The U.S. EPA is revising its long-term blueprint to restore the Lakes. Leaders from the U.S. and Canada are in the throes of implementing a sweeping bi-national water agreement. Communities are grappling with the impacts of climate change. And the region is working to address a new threat to the Lakes—the potential for an oil pipeline spill in the Great Lakes, the largest source of fresh surface water on the planet....
Great Lakes Week encompasses conferences hosted by the International Joint Commission, U.S. EPA, Great Lakes Commission, Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition, and Environment Canada, as well as the Council of Great Lakes Industries, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative and the newly organized Council of the Great Lakes Region – the leading organizations that deal with Great Lakes issues.
Dale Austin. “Two-Hearted River.” Photograph. Dale Austin: Testing the Water. August 2007. Accessed 12 September 2013.
Michigan DNR. "Burned trees in the wake of the Duck Lake Fire that hit Michigan's Upper Peninsula May 23." Photograph. Did Duck Lake Fire Kill Much Wildlife? MLive.com 9 June 2012. Accessed 12 September 2013.
NOAA/GRERL. "Low water at Mission Point, 2000." Photograph. Lake Michigan and Lake Huron Hit All-Time Low Water Levels. Dr. Jeff Masters' Wunderblog 6 February 2013. Accessed 13 September 2013.
NOAA/Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin--Madison. "Lake Superior with almost no ice cover, March 2012." Photograph. Disappearing Ice Spells Uncertain Future for Lake Superior. Great Lakes Echo 21 March 2013. Accessed 13 September 2013.
"Relief, Drainage and Urban Areas [of the Great Lakes Basin]." Map.
The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book. Government of Canada and United States Environmental Protection Agency. Third Edition, 1995. Accessed 12 September 2013.
Wang, Jia, Xuezhi Bai, Haoguo Hu, Anne Clites, Marie Colton, Brent Lofgren, 2012: Temporal and spatial variability of great lakes ice cover, 1973–2010*. J. Climate, 25, 1318–1329. doi: http://dx.doi.org/...