'Dynamic Lakes and Lake Dynamics' starts key dialogue on our lakes

Thursday, January 16, 2020 - 10:25am

I watched a video about five years ago that detailed how states in the U.S. would be affected by climate change in the next 50 years. Moving from west to east, I saw the expected: more droughts and wildfires on the West Coast, intense hurricanes in the East and rising sea levels all throughout the continental U.S., with large areas of Florida and North Carolina underwater. But what about the Midwest? Many hold a misconception that climate change will affect the Midwest less severely. The video affirmed this, concluding that Michigan would be one of the safest states to live in the near future. While this may, in part, be true, we often overlook one key factor: the Great Lakes. 

Water levels of the Great Lakes have been steadily rising, with a record rise in water levels from 2014 to the present. News feeds are cluttered with images of entirely submerged lakeshore properties, or staircases and ceilings being swept away by the passing water. Many of us may recognize that climate change is responsible for these rising water levels, but will they ever return to normal? And if not, won’t our Michigan shorelines suffer? 

The Great Lakes Theme Semester, hosted through LSA, tries to give us some answers. This past Monday was the first panel in a series of six intended to give the public perspective on issues surrounding the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Theme Semester also includes museum and photography exhibitions, among other events featured throughout campus.

Speakers at this first panel, titled “Dynamic Lakes and Lake Dynamics,” included Drew Gronewold, professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability, Guy Meadows of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University, Susan Och of Leland Township Parks and Recreation and James Clift, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. 

Effects of climate change are startling, which is why some of us avoid thinking about it unless we have to. Climate change is also a slow process (remember, climate not weather), making it hard to directly observe unless an expert points it out to us. The term “eco-anxiety,” anxiety about natural threats such as climate change, has been coined in the last decade, and it’s easy to understand why. Large scale global changes are stressful, even more so when options seem bleak without policy change. But I’ve found something strangely reassuring in talking about climate change with my friends, colleagues, experts or even roommates. This is the conversation that “Dynamic Lakes and Lake Dynamics” intended to continue.

The panel offered both scientific and political perspectives on the Great Lakes, contrasting topics like the hydrological cycle and shoreline erosion with local and state-wide policies. Gronewold said the water levels of the lakes tend to oscillate between extreme highs and lows (unlike sea levels, which have been rising consistently for the last 150 years). Lows occur when higher average temperatures cause evaporation to increase, and highs occur when this increased moisture falls as heavy rainfall. It’s hard to predict the water level of the lakes in any given year, a trend that climate change is responsible for (this tug of war between extremes is the same reason that Michigan has extremely cold winter during some years, but very warm winters during others). This fluctuation between high and low water levels, as well as increased wave energy, has devastating effects through the process of shoreline erosion. Beaches and cliffs are being pushed further back each year, blurring the line between public and private property along the lakes. 

So, what can we do? In truth, not much. Water levels are dependent on continental moisture patterns, which by nature are challenging to predict. Aside from building lakeshore properties further from the shore, controlling one of the world’s largest reserves of freshwater is no easy task. Our best bet is to curb the effects of global warming at the individual and national level. Michigan will likely become a state that lives along the extremes, as will many other states in the U.S. As much as we like to believe it, the Midwest is not exempt from climate change. The Great Lakes Theme Semester opens up an important and accessible dialogue that I urge everyone to be a part of.

More information about the Great Lakes Theme Semester and future panels can be found at https://lsa.umich.edu/greatlakes