If climate policies don’t change, the Great Lakes will be a much less hospitable place for people and aquatic life. That’s one of the takeaways from a new report by more than a dozen universities in the Midwest and Canada. Activists hope the report will spur local lawmakers to act.
Researchers like Brad Cardinale of the University of Michigan say heavy rains will flush more sewage and nutrients into the lakes, threatening drinking water and causing other public health issues.
“We’ve already seen an increase in the number of beach closures in recent years due to the detection of high levels of human pathogens,” he says.
High bacteria levels closed four beaches in Indiana and triggered advisories at more than 30 of them last year. Researchers say while Lake Erie is notorious for its issues with algal blooms, they're now starting to see more of them in Lake Superior as well.
Climate change could also put U.S. energy sources at risk as water levels on the Great Lakes decrease and temperatures rise. Cardinale says many coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants rely on water from the lakes for cooling. In fact, he says 65 percent of all water withdrawls from the Great Lakes are used for this purpose.
Those fluctuating water levels could make shipping along the Great Lakes unsafe — and therefore more expensive. According to one study referenced in the report, a roughly three foot decrease in water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron could lead to a 3.6 percent to 12.2 percent increase in shipping costs.
"And that's going to translate to higher costs of doing business in the Great Lakes, which will ultimately be passed on to consumers," Cardinale says.
Howard Lerner is the executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which helped commission the report. He says Midwest governors and mayors need to work to prevent these harmful effects.
“The time to act is now," Lerner says. "We cannot wait for the Trump administration to accept sound science.”
Among other things, the ELPC suggests local lawmakers work to advance renewable energy, implement energy efficiency measures, invest in alternative transportation like bike paths and public transit, and control agricultural runoff.
For the third time, the Trump administration has proposed cutting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which among other things helps prevent pollution and invasive species in the lakes.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.