(This is a longer version of a story that was originally posted on the Guardian’s Sustainable Business site, which you can read here: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/hubs-water-adaptation)
It took thousands of years to scrape and sculpt the five large basins that would become the Great Lakes, a resource so vast that if emptied today would cover North America in five feet of water.
The early European settlers set up trading posts along the giant waterway, seeding an enormous industrial complex that has been an oasis of growth for the U.S. and Canada, now the world’s two largest trading partners.
But after nearly a decade and half of warming waters and declining water levels, including record lows this year in lakes Michigan and Huron, concern is mounting that overuse, neglect and climate change are irrevocably altering the world’s largest fresh water reserve.
“Changes in water temperatures are really a major threat in the Great Lakes,” said Peter McIntyre, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology. ”It’s a pretty acute shift. It’s what worries me the most.”
Borne of glacial melt but now eerily at the mercy of the skies, the Great Lakes have been hit hard by shorter winters and warmer summers. Big shipping companies, tourism and cottage owners are reeling, with many pressing for man-made solutions to adapt to the changes.
From crisp Superior to the west to Lake Ontario to the east, the Great Lakes comprise a 2,300 mile deep-draft navigation system, the longest in the world. It’s an efficient conduit for shipping iron ore, coal and grain to the major cities within the lakes, as well as out to the Atlantic through the St. Lawrence Seaway.
But the $34 billion Great Lakes shipping industry, which ships more than 160 million tonnes of cargo annually, is struggling to adapt to the receding waters. Fear of running aground is forcing them to lighten their loads, which raises costs for the shippers, the steel mills, car manufacturers and utilities, ultimately hitting the consumer in the end.
“At the end of the day it causes a lot of inefficiencies,” said Mark Barker, President of Interlake Steamship Co, one of the biggest shipping companies on the lakes. He said this spring his biggest ship, the Paul R. Tregurtha, which can carry up to 70,000 tonnes of cargo, had to slash its load by 6,000 tonnes per trip, because of the low water levels, a sharp loss in revenue for the company.
The Great Lakes receive some fresh water from rivers but the bulk of its nourishment comes from the skies. But what the skies give, they can also take away. Because there have been shorter winters and hotter summers — some put the blame squarely on climate change — evaporation rates have been on the rise. Water levels have been below average for more than 14 years, which is also a record and an indicator for some that the drop is not just part of normal cyclical fluctuations in lake levels.
“We have not seen anything like this in our recorded history,” Frank Quinn, an emeritus hydrologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, earlier this year.
MAN MADE SOLUTIONS
Thanks to a snowy winter this year and a rainy spring, water levels began to recover in July and August, but Huron and Michigan were still about 18 inches below its average in July.
There is a lot of pressure on government’s to give Mother Nature a hand, including the dredging of ports. In April, the International Joint Commission, the Canada-U.S. body that oversees the Great Lakes, released a report recommending that governments should build structures in the St. Clair River to slow the water coming out of the Michigan and Huron lakes.
The plan was welcomed by some conservationist groups but in an illustration of the conflicting arguments on the issue, the chair of the U.S. section of the commission, Lana Pollack, refused to sign it, saying it did not not give enough attention to the problem of climate change.
In a written dissension, Pollack said the plan “places insufficient emphasis on climate change and the need for governments to pursue adaptive management strategies in the basin.”
That is the essence of the problem: digging harbours and erecting structures are helpful but might not be enough if the lakes get warmer and the rate of evaporation continues.
“In order to restore water levels, you need a series of wet years like we had this past spring, as the amounts of water involved are extraordinarily large,” said Paul Roebber, Founder of Innovative Weather at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Some believe people that use the lakes — from the cottage owners to the shippers — need to learn to adapt to the ever changing environs of the Great Lakes and be careful what and when they build. If the climate is going to continue on its unpredictable path there is no point in endlessly dredging harbours or digging up wetlands, as some cottage and hotel owners have tried to do to reclaim a long lost beach.
“Some of the discussions around the region are ‘how do we put in more control structures to control the lake levels,’” said Don Scavia, Director of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, at the University of Michigan. “I’m not convinced that’s the solution. I think we need to learn to adapt to the variations.”