The Region of the Great Lakes Is Not a ‘Climate Haven’


The water-rich United States area may experience colder temperatures due to its elevation above sea level. However, it cannot be a haven for anybody unless it takes immediate measures to adapt to its changing environment.

When I consider climate change and the Great Lakes, I am conflicted. As the CEO of an organization dedicated to lake protection, I often hear how our area is a “climate sanctuary,” When people are fleeing fast warming portions of the United States seeking safety farther north, they will bring their cash and ingenuity. However, this assessment ignores the damage already done by climate change and the uncertain reality we now face.

Water to rescue

Residents in the Great Lakes region tend to assume that their water will rescue them. This I wish was true since I adore this region of the globe and stand in amazement on the beaches of the lakes. I hope that more Americans will flock to the Great Lakes to seek the opportunity, a healthy environment to flourish, and a “Blue Economy” that supports our varied and resilient communities since “water is the new oil.” Or that the growing season will be extended by a month or two, ensuring our agriculture’s continued viability for another century. – information from bridgepayday

We convince ourselves that we will win the climate lottery since we are surrounded by this fantastic resource 600 feet above sea level. However, purchasing that ticket is premature until our elected authorities and the commercial sector completely adjust to our new climate reality. The area of the Great Lakes has seen the results of decades of working against nature. These repercussions are seen in the widespread poisoning of our rivers and ports, the writhing exotic species that have infested our waterways, and the poisonous algae caused by an agricultural pollution overload that has contaminated our drinking water.

The climate change

Observers of the Great Lakes have accumulated substantial evidence that climate change is increasing the height of the lakes’ high water cycles and decreasing the size of their low water cycles. They project that these cycles will occur more quickly. Storms that are more powerful pose a danger to individuals, homes, and businesses. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change study, carbon reductions locally and internationally will not protect the Great Lakes from severe climate consequences.

You cannot refer to the Great Lakes as a climatic sanctuary if the only people seeking shelter are those already here. Before we waste further time and energy believing that people would return if conditions deteriorate enough elsewhere, we would be wise to focus our attention inward on the areas already experiencing water scarcity. Around Lake Erie, over half a million people lost access to clean drinking water in 2014 due to agricultural contamination. In 2020, over 10,000 people were evacuated from flooded houses in central Michigan due to a storm intended to occur only once every 500 years. Thousands of places in the Detroit region — including my father’s — were flooded this summer due to heavy storms. Even frigid Lake Superior, heavily reliant on tourism, now sees blue-green algae blooms in the summer heat. These experiences are repeated across the area, and the expense of providing safe and clean water and sanitation is becoming more unsustainable for lower-income Great Lakes inhabitants.

Like the rest of the country, the Great Lakes must be included in a national climate policy that assists residents in adapting to climate change while addressing core causes.

Being a climate refuge entails collaborating with both environment and humans. This requires action from all levels of government and the commercial sector to make this a sanctuary for everyone who already lives here. The infrastructure, governance, and economic growth incentives we swore to throughout the twentieth century are no match for the consequences of climate change or the disparities in how people experience them, which often intersect along racial and economic lines.

The Great Lakes area is a few steps ahead of the rest of the country in terms of adaptability. Naturally, our water is – 95 percent of North America’s surface freshwater is pure, albeit not everywhere. Chicago is the third-largest urban economy in the United States. The Great Lakes area, which includes the United States and Canada, would be the third-largest economy if it were its nation. The region is densely packed with thriving metro centers, smaller communities, and substantial academic institutions, providing a diverse range of accessible work and educational options. Perhaps most significantly, we have a degree of temporal luxury. Crisis elicits action, although it is often not strategic. Growing awareness of the Great Lakes’ impacts, combined with the fact that we are not yet facing widespread flooding or fiery cataclysms, means that changes made today can have a lasting effect on future generations.

Our future may be prosperous. Let us make the most of the time we have left to create an egalitarian Great Lakes area for the people and animals that rely on them now and the variety of possible climate refugees who may one day turbocharge shared prosperity.

Agriculture, tourism, industry, and utilities need to pick up their game. Develop and restore miles of resilient public shorelines to ensure healthy access to water while safeguarding vital and costly infrastructure. Change coastal zoning and prohibit new development within 500 feet of the coastline. Make clean water a prerequisite for food production, not a dirty mess to be cleaned up afterward. Invest with the same zeal and scale in nature-based green infrastructure as we did in concrete and pipes in the twentieth century. Consider the advice of global experts in countries such as the Netherlands, where significant efforts to rehabilitate natural shorelines are assisting in avoiding a fragmented approach. Build-in harmony with nature.

Yes, a major revamp of the Great Lakes’ water infrastructure would be costly. Changing how we plan for and develop on the coastline — or, more precisely, away from it — is also necessary. It was expensive in the 1970s and 1980s when we rebuilt our sewage systems with federal funding. It was costly when we invested almost $4 billion in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, resulting in at least $3.35 in extra economic benefits for every dollar invested. Those investments worked out somewhat brilliantly for anybody who loves to swim without getting sick or who wants to create a company near what used to be a hazardous waste dump. If we wish the Great Lakes to remain a climate refuge centered on water, we must also invest now or risk a future in which today’s challenges only worsen.

If we do not take action, this tale will continue to repeat itself, leaving us to wonder what happened to our water — and our climate sanctuary.


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