OPINION: Adaptation needed in the Great Lakes region due to climate change


The effects of climate change are increasing in urban areas and placing high financial burdens on local authorities.

This article by John Hartig, University of Windsor; Patrícia Galvão Ferreira, University of Windsor, and Robert Michael McKay, University of Windsor originally appeared in the conversation and is published here with permission.

The Great Lakes are getting warmer, wetter and wilder. These atypical conditions amplify other threats. Harmful algal blooms are increasing in severity and geographic extent, sewers overflow, and rainwater floods neighborhoods and parks. Many terrestrial organisms are moving north, and the deterioration in air quality disproportionately affects the most vulnerable people in cities.

The Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world’s standing fresh water and more than 34 million people live in the basin, which supports a $ 5 trillion economy – if it were a country, it would be one of the largest economies in the world . Yet coastal communities are teetering under the burden of billions of dollars in damage – and worries that climate change will make things worse.

Like the thawing permafrost in the Arctic, the Great Lakes Basin is an important guardian of climate change. Climate change has already had an immense impact on the region and its effects will continue to intensify as climate change accelerates, creating new socio-economic and environmental challenges.

During the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), world leaders discuss what needs to be done to address the climate crisis and promise to take concrete action. Adaptation is an important part of the COP26 agenda, including the Glasgow Adaptation Imperative, to assess the actions taken and needed to meet the Paris Agreement adaptation goal and promote a more climate resilient future for all, especially the most vulnerable communities and Ecosystems.

Effects of climate change

In the Great Lakes, climate change is considered a threat multiplier, which means that it exacerbates other threats to the ecosystem.

All of the Great Lakes are warming up, but Lake Superior stands out. Still the coldest lake, its surface water temperatures rose by 2.5 ° C in the summer between 1979 and 2006, even faster than the air temperatures. Even the deep waters of Lake Michigan are warming at a rate of 0.5 ° C per decade.

The Great Lakes have lost more than 70 percent of their total winter ice cover in the last 50 years. That means more open water in winter, thinner ice, and less ice fishing, which is so popular with residents of the basin. However, lower ice cover will lengthen the commercial shipping season.

Overall, the warming of the lakes will change the seasonal patterns of the warm and cold water layers and the dynamics of the lakes’ food webs and lead to greater coastal damage from strong winter storms.

In some areas within the Great Lakes basin, the water level has risen by two meters, eroded coastlines, washed away houses, destroyed roads, threatened infrastructures such as water treatment plants and destroyed ancient traditions of indigenous peoples.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to birds in the Great Lakes and North America. The 2019 Audubon Survival by Degrees report found that 64 percent of bird species (389 out of 604) were moderately or highly vulnerable to climate change during both breeding and non-breeding seasons. As indicator species, birds tell us that now is the time to act.

In addition, climate change is likely to alter the range and distribution of certain fish species, increase the frequency and severity of harmful algal blooms, exacerbate wetland loss, create new invasive species threats, adversely affect beaches and in some cases displace or eradicate native species .

Urban effects of climate change

The effects of climate change are increasing in urban areas and placing high financial burdens on local authorities. Detroit is a good example.

Detroit is an ancient city with combined rain and sewer systems that overflow rainwater and raw sewage when it rains heavily. It also has lots of impervious surfaces that encourage drainage.

Extreme rains have flooded highways, streets and neighborhoods. Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood has been frequently flooded by high water levels. In response, the city spent $ 2 million in 2020 on tiger dams, large, temporary, water-filled berms to protect the water from home flooding.

On the 398-acre Belle Isle State Park, floods blocked roads, flooded picnic areas, and postponed 60 weddings at the popular Boat House, a more than 100-year-old rowing facility, in 2019, enforcing the million-dollar habitat restoration project on the Blue Heron Lagoon Redesign of the one-acre, US $ 4.2 million Oudolf garden designed by Piet Oudolf, an internationally renowned Dutch garden designer.

Detroit is projected to see a significant increase in the number of very hot days by the end of the century, reaching over 32.2 ° C for up to 65 days. The heat load and poor air quality associated with the climate threat will make the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Adaptation to climate change

Many municipalities, provinces and states around the Great Lakes have developed high-cost adaptation plans to address the local effects of climate change. This decentralized approach has its own problems, such as the unintended cross-border effects of local adjustments or duplication of work. The United Nations has shown that strategies to reduce the risk of flooding in one part of one river basin can increase the risk of flooding in another part of the river basin that is in a different country.

An integrated, basin-wide ecosystem approach could enable cost sharing in scientific studies and coordinated policy action at national and subnational levels, which would lead to better adaptation. Since the Great Lakes are a common resource for many governments, including Canada, the United States, eight states, two provinces and tribes, First Nations, and the Métis Nation, cross-border collaboration is required.

In 2017, the Great Lakes Water Quality Board of the International Joint Commission, an independent advisor to Canada and the United States, recommended that both countries negotiate and develop a coordinated strategy for climate change adaptation and environmental resilience. These recommendations reflect strong public opinion, but almost five years later no comprehensive bi-national strategy on climate change has been implemented.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement calls for increased measures to anticipate and prevent ecological damage by following the precautionary principle: if human activities can lead to unacceptable damage that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, action must be taken to avoid or reduce this damage.

There is ample scientific evidence that climate change is a threat to the entire Great Lakes region – and the 38 million people who live there. As discussed and pledged at COP26, everyone must work together to limit global warming to 1.5 ° C, including the Great Lakes region, and everyone must immediately drive climate adaptation and resilience.

John Hartig, Visiting Scholar, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, University of Windsor; Patrícia Galvão Ferreira, Junior Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Windsor, and Robert Michael McKay, Executive Director and Professor, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, University of Windsor

This article is republished by The conversation under a Creative Commons license. read this original article.

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