Land Acknowledgment: As the author of this piece and a frequent visitor of the Great Lakes, I acknowledge that many of the cities, and landmarks discussed in this piece reside on traditional and ancestral indigenous lands. I encourage readers to explore the cultures, traditions and history of the 20 (recorded) tribes that resided around The Great Lakes in the past and advocate for the tribes that remain around the lakes and in Michigan. I stand with the Indigenous tribes who have faced prejudiced, unfair and violent treatment and I stand against the colonization of these tribes and advocate for a decolonized future.
For anyone born or raised in the state of Michigan, the Great Lakes are an essential part of childhood, education and growth. In the state of Michigan, you’re never further than 85 miles from one of the Great Lakes, allowing these majestic wonders, wrapped around our mitten state, to closely intertwine with each aspect of our lives.
These freshwater wonders have become increasingly important at a national level as droughts across the country have caused Great Lakes waters to be used as far as Arizona. Because of the lake’s abundance of resources and temperate climate, they’re often viewed as a place of climate refuge, immune to the impending changes in our natural environment — but this is far from true.
Our increased reliance on the natural resources of the Great Lakes has instead put our country and state at more risk. Each lake plays a vital role in our state’s economy, natural resources and tourism industry, which will make their deterioration even more traumatic.
Beyond the economic concerns, climate change threatens education and exposure to the natural world for generations to come, stripping the staple family trip to Lake Michigan and replacing kayaking on Lake Huron with a flight to somewhere far away.
As students of the state, we need to recognize the importance of these lakes to our economy and actively work to promote the conservation and preservation of these natural wonders.
When I was 16, my parents agreed to let my best friend and I embark on our first camping trip alone together. Despite our best efforts to convince our parents to approve a trip to the Traverse City area, the four-hour drive didn’t sit well with them and we compromised, agreeing on a small town called Port Austin. We packed up the faithful Volkswagen in the mid-July heat and took off to the crooked thumb of Michigan. With the exception of the lack of vegan cuisine, our small town proved to be perfect — welcoming us in with a flurry of wildlife preservations, lakeshores and hiking trails that lay relatively empty despite it being the peak of tourist season.
On our third day, we packed up camp, wrapped up sandwiches and rented kayaks in preparation for a three-mile paddle to the crown jewel of the area. The trek out proved to be an unpleasant combination of rocky waves and an uncomfortable amount of seasickness. But after about an hour, we rounded the cliffs, and the crown jewel of the thumb appeared.
Mushroom Rock, nestled into the rocky cliffs of Lake Huron, emerged into our view as a majestic inverted pyramid that erupted 40 feet out of the water and stayed there. The impressive formation, we later read, was thanks to thousands of years of erosion from Lake Huron’s unique intensity of water level fluctuations.
In 2020, The Chicago Tribune covered the turbulent changes in water levels that have taken place over the last 10 years across Lake Huron’s Shoreline. Due to the absence of dams, and its connection to Lake Michigan by the Straits of Mackinac, both Lake Huron and Michigan are prone to more extreme fluctuations in water levels than the other Great Lakes. In the Tribune’s reporting, they found that the water level fluctuations were increasing in both frequency and intensity. In 2013, Lake Huron reached a record low water level of 576 ft. at its deepest point, leaving docks and boats surrounded by mud and costing the coastline communities thousands of dollars. Just six years later, the water level rose six ft. clocking in at 581.9 ft, the seasonal record high for the Michigan-Huron basin.
Richard B. Rood, professor of climate and space sciences, told the Tribune that more extreme water level fluctuations are in the Great Lakes’ future.
“I think it’s reasonable to expect in the next 10 to 30 years, perhaps longer, one of the main outcomes of climate change might be more variability, higher highs and lower lows,” Rood said.
The increased precipitation rates and decreased evaporation rates severely threaten the many communities located along the 3,000-mile coastline. The community’s reliance on Lake Huron for its fishing sources and natural resources will soon be forced to quickly adapt to the economic and natural pressures of the rapidly changing ecosystem.
Beyond the inhabited communities, Lake Huron is home to 30,000 islands, harboring unique and important ecosystems vital for migratory birds and fish. The islands, now prone to frequent flooding, are disappearing, slowly disrupting the migratory patterns of the birds and fish as their pitstops become obsolete.
Experiencing the small worlds housed within each island and the spectacular phenomena of mushroom rock may turn out to be a short-lived privilege, removed as an option for family vacations and first camping trips. These complex ecosystems now lie in the hands of those in power to protect and preserve their natural wonders.
My visits to lake Ontario are seldom, as it is the only Great Lake that lies separate from the mitten state. Known mainly for the 8th wonder of the world, Niagara Falls, Ontario is home to the getaways in upstate New York, frequented by those who need a break from the hustle of New York City.
I didn’t anticipate a connection to Lake Ontario. In fact, when I was writing this piece, I called to ask if I had ever been to Lake Ontario. Turns out I have been. The summer before my senior year of high school my family and I embarked on a road trip through upstate New York to visit colleges I might apply to in the fall. Syracuse, Ithaca and Cornell topped the list but thinking back, University of Rochester is the one that has stayed fresh in my mind.
My grandmother attended the University of Rochester for her undergraduate degree, graduating in 1962, and took us around the campus, pointing out distant memories and buildings she remembered from decades before. We followed her through the library as she expertly weaved in and out of bookstacks leading us to her favorite nook on campus. Even 55 years later, a chair remained burrowed into the stacks of the manuscripts and rare books overlooking the Genesee River.
After our G’ma led tour had ended, we followed the same river to the shore of Lake Ontario, and pulled onto the side of the road to a place my dad had deemed as “suitable for dinner.” Exhausted from walking and the tension that is inevitable on any family road-trip, the irritability and “hangriness” were practically bursting from our car as we systematically unloaded the car.
Immediately the restlessness subsided. With each cooler and lawn chair unloaded, we became more aware of the tranquil forest that surrounded the five of us. The familiar and calming sound of the waves lapping against the rocky shore overrode the emotion and frustration which just moments ago had overflowed from our Honda Pilot.
Even hundreds of miles and many hours of tense driving from home, we felt at peace. We quietly unpacked my grandmother’s neatly packed sandwiches — cut into triangles, not squares — and unzipped her carefully divided up bags of cheese, crackers and apples until we had a small feast laid out on the crooked picnic table in front of us.
Besides the buzzing of the bees, we let the sound of the lake blanket our dinner. Little did my sassy 16-year-old self know, four years later I’d be looking back on these memories, willing to do anything to experience them again.
My grandmother passed away this May, leaving a hole in the hearts of many family members and friends. She attended multiple family trips to different Great Lakes and loved bird watching and squirrel observing. Her lifelong dedication to nature and wildlife preservation never ceased to impress me and I will always credit my interest and passion for conservation to her education.
The connection to nature and wildlife my family and I share is one I overlook too often. The serenity and peacefulness accompanied by the proximity and familiarity of any one of the Great Lakes is astonishing and one I hope I can impart to my own children one day.
But the ability to visit these freshwater wonders is becoming more difficult as scientists begin to diagnose the Great Lakes as being in a state of climate crisis.
Joseph Desloges, professor at the University of Toronto, told The Narwhal that climate change has started to impact the Great Lakes in extremes. From record highs and lows in temperatures, precipitation rates, and water levels, these extreme conditions are forcing the surrounding ecosystems and communities to adapt much faster than is naturally possible.
“As you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the atmosphere becomes more energetic,” Desloges told The Narwhal. “What you end up experiencing in a lot of regions is greater variability. So some years are very wet and cold, some years very hot and dry. So that variability becomes extreme.”
These extremes threaten the local wildlife and lakes that have become a priceless part of education and tradition for families and students across the midwest — families like my own and students like myself. The respect and connection many people share with the Great Lakes is a privilege and is often overlooked. Our access to beaches and their shorelines is a prized treasure too often seen as ‘just a trip up north.’ I fear the desensitization to these beautiful bodies of water will cause us to take action only once they are already gone, only once we realize what we are missing.
I’ll be the first to say that Lake Michigan is a tourist lake. The west coast of the Michigan hand is lined exclusively with beach towns with a homey feel that eventually fades into extreme wealth. Despite the shorelines tightly packed with glamorous cabins, Lake Michigan’s magic remains untouched for those who venture off the beaten path.
The dunes are a mitten staple. Empire Michigan draws hundreds of thousands of tourists a year to its sandy slopes, inviting anyone who can walk to retreat to their childlike instincts and run down the dunes.
For my parents, the dunes were a small break in the exhaustive family vacations we took when my brother and I were younger. Perched at the bottom, they pulled out the camcorder, documenting our tumbles and races down the steep dunes.
The last time I visited the dunes was with a group of friends, post-high school graduation, in the middle of the pandemic. After our prom, commencement and many final moments had been taken from us, our parents had reluctantly agreed to let us take a covid-conscious trip to the dunes.
We each slept in different tents and walked everywhere, making the most of our restricted travel. Our mindful travel itinerary was quickly compromised when we showed up to the main stretch of dunes with hopes to watch the sunset over the lake only to find them packed, not social distance approved.
Still determined, we hiked further north, determined to find somewhere, anywhere to close out our high school experience. Luckily, about a mile in we found a path that ascended steeply and slowly faded into a sandy cap at the top. We climbed quickly, the last few minutes of daylight glistening through the pine trees, warning us of our time restrictions.
Finally, we reached the summit. We lined ourselves up on the top of the dune, looking out over Lake Michigan which seemed to go on forever. It was silent up here. With no one around us, and the sand to muffle our own movements, we sat in a row, mesmerized by the sun seamlessly folding into the horizon.
I’m not sure what each of us was thinking, but I like to picture each one of us reflecting on the years we had spent together. Some of us friends since middle school or even elementary school had grown up side by side together, unsure of what the next four years at different schools would mean for us.
The sun finally said its last goodbye as the last fiery sliver disappeared into the depths of Lake Michigan, soldering us together one final time. There was no rush to leave so instead we stayed as conversations slowly emerged from our sunset silence.
The conversation flowed seamlessly, only interrupted by the application of bug spray and sweatshirts. We talked about our futures and fears, convinced that if we talked for long enough, we’d be able to solve all the world’s problems. Finally, when it became too cold for even the toughest of us we packed up, taking one final look at the lake which had become blended by the darkness into the sky and shore. We climbed down slowly now to bed, falling asleep to the sound of the waves.
My relationship to Lake Michigan has become a capstone part of my life. The memories and moments I’ve made are enough to overflow even the deepest part of the lake, filling the unsalted water with love and happiness.
This abundance of passion for this lake is one I fear will eventually fade as our Great Lakes become unrecognizable, having succumbed to climate change. Connected to Lake Huron, Lake Michigan faces many of the same challenges, forced to adapt to severe changes in water levels and temperature fluctuations, forcing the ecosystems into an unsustainable and turbulent cycle.
Lake Michigan however will most significantly see the toll of climate change on their tourism-based economy. As the water continues to rise, the summer-time beaches and cabins will become inhabitable and undesirable, draining the shoreline towns from the income they desperately rely on for the colder months.
The Great Lakes Commission reported that together, the five Great Lakes bring in approximately $52 billion annually, just from the tourism industry. Their role in the Michigan economy is one we cannot live without, so for those who are able to easily ignore my environmental anecdotes and the natural world, I urge you to pivot and look at the devastating impact this crisis will have on our jobs and economy.
Lake Erie has been the face of the Midwest climate crisis for years. From its infamous lake fire in 1969 to the toxic algae blooms budding across its shoreline in recent years, its proximity to agricultural and industrial hubs has taken a critical toll on the Erie ecosystems.
Despite the damage Erie has experienced, my relationship with the Michigan-Ohio lake ties solely to its environmental sanctuaries. Lake Erie is home to the so-called ‘Biggest Week in American Birding’ where migratory paths of hundreds of aviary species collide in Ohio’s Magee Marsh.
Remarkable for Ohio, Magee Marsh allows for a blanket of submersion into the wooded serenity of Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Upon entering the boardwalk of the Marsh, you’re engulfed in a world of bird and amphibian calls. The noise of the outside world becomes muted, only interrupted by the soft treading of hiking boots on the worn boardwalk. The natural focus on other humans fades away, allowing your attention to be drawn deep into the thicket of brush and branches in an attempt to find the newest Warbler or songbird of the day. And in the background of this masterful game of iSpy, the waves of Lake Erie lap the rock shore adorned with sandpipers, gulls, and Petoskey stones.
This natural haven stands spectacularly small in comparison to the rest of the Lake Erie shoreline but represents the potential of a preserved shoreline. Just north of Magee Marsh, the lake has been inhabited by a vast spread of algae blooms fueled by the phosphorus overload from the fertilizer runoff of nearby farms.
The blooms have a signature visual effect, identifiable by their blue and green tie-dye effect that reaches across the middle of the lake. These beautiful patterns prove deadly as their extensive mass of cyanobacteria consumes oxygen from the depths of the lakes, leaving the once-balanced ecosystems severely oxygen-deprived.
The blooms have been responsible for multiple waterborne disease outbreaks, causing 42 reported diseases in 2013-2014. In response to the illnesses, Ohio has mandated several no-drink orders in hopes to minimize those affected. While these bans are effective in cutting off the problem at the faucet, they leave vulnerable communities without easily accessible drinking water for days on end.
The nature of these no-drink orders and oxygen-deprived waters is becoming increasingly unsustainable as the rest of the country expands its reliance on the Great Lakes for their drinking water. If we are to capitalize on the natural resources offered by these stunning lakes we need to do so mindfully and sustainably with the future in mind. Be mindful of the surrounding wilderness around you, whether swimming or hiking, and leave no trace behind.
Cradling the Upper Peninsula, Lake Superior is the deepest, deadliest and arguably the most beautiful of the Great Lakes. The 3 quadrillion-gallon mass of water houses some of Michigan’s most iconic landmarks. The stunning beauty of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore clads every Pure Michigan poster throughout the state while not so far away the Porcupine Mountains lure thousands of hikers each summer to explore the seldom but beautiful mountainous terrain. Superior is reserved for those willing to make the trek up to the Upper Peninsula or those brave enough to bear the harsh northern winters of the Northern Midwest.
My dad and I traveled up to Lake Superior a couple of summers in a row on a visit to a single-stoplight town called Paradise. Paradise is home to Whitefish Point, known for its lighthouse and shipwreck museum, a morbid nod to the ‘Graveyard of the Great Lakes’ where an estimated 350 shipwrecks lay at the bottom.
Knowing its deathly history and freezing temperatures, I was always cautious around the rocky shores of Superior and weary of the waves that clawed their way up the Petoskey-speckled shore. The frigid waters made it difficult to separate the Gordon Lightfoot coined ‘lake that never gives up her dead’ from its spectacular beauty, but with experience, I grew to respect and appreciate Superior’s icy waters and they became the perfect conclusion to a day of U.P. hikes.
Exhausted from the hilly trails surrounding Tahquamenon Falls, my dad and I would trudge reluctantly into the water, letting the waves grasp desperately at our muddy ankles only to reveal sock tan lines and paths of mosquito bites climbing up our legs.
The signature freezing water, however, is rapidly changing. So much so that some scientists have considered it one of the fastest-warming lakes in the country. The warming temperatures create a domino effect on many other pivotal factors of the unique Great Lakes ecosystems. Jay Austin, Professor at the University of Minnesota, told Michigan Radio that one of the most notable changes the increase in temperature will have on Lake Superior will be a rise in invasive species.
“One of the things that has kept Lake Superior relative to the other Great Lakes less susceptible to invasive species is the fact that it is so cold,” Austin told Michigan Radio. “And so I think that the impacts on the ecosystem are what we really worry about.”
The increase in invasive species has the potential to throw off many of the industries we rely on throughout the Great Lakes. For example, the whitefish population has the potential to drop significantly if the waters continue to warm. The species is sacred to the Anishinaabe culture and plays a pivotal role in the Michigan economy. Additionally, the warming temperatures threaten the ice coverage on the lake that is essential for many winter industries.
Superior’s quiet and threatening nature is becoming increasingly threatened by the warming planet. Its calm facade masks the urgency of the action we as a society need to take to preserve these unique and essential Michigan ecosystems.
While I could list hundreds of ways each individual could easily reduce their carbon footprint, our carbon crisis has reached a capacity where only the corporations and governments who have pried and warped the limitations of our planet are able to fix the problem looming over Earth, and in particular, our Great Lakes.
But for the times when we might feel exhausted, hopeless and frustrated with our planet’s climate crisis, we can identify the privilege each one of us holds and use it to raise awareness for the environment. Any action, no matter how small, can make a difference. From going vegetarian to saying no to a plastic bag or straw, these little actions add up across the world and culminate into an impact. Donate to and uplift organizations that are working tirelessly to research and prevent the worsening of climate change in the Great Lakes region, and use your voice and power to educate those around you with the narratives and facts of our changing planet.
Above all, respect our planet. Find the part of nature that speaks to you and nurture it. Take a walk, leave no trace behind and get outside.
Statement Contributor Shannon Stocking can be reached at email@example.com.