Erratic and extreme lake level fluctuations will be the “new normal” for the Great Lakes, as climate change causes more frequent and more intense storms.
This is according to a new report from U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), who hosted a climate change roundtable with local health and environmental stakeholders Tuesday morning in Lansing. Stabenow had released a 21-page report the day before that summarizes climate change research and what it could mean for the Great Lakes region in particular.
“It’s a sense of urgency, not hopelessness, that causes me to want to come forward and really lift this up at this time,” Stabenow told stakeholders at the roundtable, which was held at the Ingham County Health Department.
Stabenow’s report also includes options for what the state can do to move forward on energy solutions to mitigate some of the effects of global warming, including more investment in clean energy jobs and energy efficient infrastructure.
“All across Michigan, we are being affected in some way by the changes in the weather,” Stabenow said. “The erratic changes are not going to stop. It’s going to continue to be swinging one way or then swing another.”
Increased precipitation from these storms can result in abnormally high lake levels, like the record high levels seen in Lakes Erie and Superior in May. This can lead to flooding and shoreline erosion. Stabenow’s report notes that the total annual precipitation in the Great Lakes has increased by 10% over the last century — compared to a 4% increase nationwide.
Conversely, global warming will cause warmer waters and higher temperatures in the summers, leading to increased evaporation and abnormally low lake levels.
In addition to these extreme lake level fluctuations, Stabenow’s report says warming waters will likely displace native fish like walleye, trout and salmon, and increase the population of invasive species like sea lamprey. Combined with heavy rains, warmer waters also pose a higher risk of harmful algal blooms.
Algal blooms have been a problem for Lake Erie in particular. This summer, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took executive action to reduce phosphorus levels in the lake in an effort to cut back on toxic algal blooms. Phosphorus is a main ingredient in crop fertilizers, which can flow into nearby bodies of water and boost algal growth during heavy rainfall.
“It’s going to get more extreme and more severe If we don’t take action,” Stabenow said. “… I was very alarmed when I heard the report that, in fact, the Great Lakes region is warming faster than other parts of the country.”
Indeed, the report cites research showing that the Great Lakes basin is warming faster than the rest of the contiguous United States. The region has already warmed 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit (ºF) in the last 68 years, and is currently on track to rise by as much as 11ºF by the end of the century.
All five Great Lakes have warmed since 1995, but Lake Superior, in particular, has become one of the fastest-warming lakes in the world, according to the report. Lake Superior is warming at an average rate of 2ºF every decade, which is twice the rate of surrounding air temperatures.
“Every one of our counties, 83 counties, has seen warming in the last 30 years,” Stabenow said, referring to a selection in the report that predicting Michigan summers to feel more like those in Missouri or Arkansas by midcentury.
Michigan’s Great Lakes received additional climate change-focused attention earlier this year, when U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) testified before the U.S. House Budget Committee in July. Kildee urged Congress to invest in a sweeping plan to stop climate change before it causes irreversible harm to sensitive environments like those of the Great Lakes.
In September, Stabenow released a list of more than 1,400 climate studies that had been published by researchers at the Department of Agriculture but apparently suppressed by the President Donald Trump administration. The studies include urgent information for farmers and ranchers in particular, who will be dealing with the effects of climate change in close proximity as global warming gets worse.
“Critical information for communities, for farmers, for those of us who care deeply about what’s happening to agriculture, these are not being shared with the people who need to know but they are being paid for by them, as taxpayers,” Stabenow said at the time, per Politico.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has denied that any scientific information was being suppressed.