Climate Change in the Midwest: Impacts, Risks, Vulnerability, and Adaptation

By S. C. Pryor | Go to book overview

15.
The Response of Great Lakes Water
Levels and Potential Impacts of Future
Climate Scenarios

J. R. ANGEL


introduction

The Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water and 84 percent of the North America surface water supply (U.S. EPA 2011). The Great Lakes basin (Figure 15.1) is home to some 34 million people (Great Lakes Information Network, 2011), with a multi-billion-dollar economy and a rich variety of ecosystems. However, the impacts of future climate change on society and the environment in the region are of great concern. The Great Lakes are currently experiencing (among other things) warmer air and water temperatures, decreases of lake ice, longer onset of lake stratification, and more variable water levels (Hin derer et al. 2010). Accordingly, “stake holders through out the Great Lakes are beginning to plan for and implement adaptation measures that will help prepare for and diminish these impacts” (Hinderer et al. 2010).

These impacts are not hypothetical. Drought conditions in the last decade have given some insight into the kinds of issues related to low Great Lakes water levels. The National Drought Mitigation Center’s Drought Impact Report (NDMC 2010) noted 17 incidences of impacts of low water levels since 1999. Many of the reports dealt with impacts on the operation of marinas and small boats. One incident in 2000 noted that the sustained dry weather caused lake levels to drop between 28 and 33 cm, forcing ships to lighten loads in order to avoid running aground. An official with the Lake Carriers’ Association was quoted as saying that this “light loading” costs about $200,000 in cargo per shipment. Another incident in 2000 noted that the wild rice beds dried up in the Kakagon Sloughs, a coastal wetland off of Lake Superior. In a 2007 incident, the report noted that the Edison Sault Electric power plant in Sault Sainte Marie was operating below 50 percent capacity due to low water levels. At the time, Lake Superior was at its lowest point in 81 years.

This chapter examines the response of the Great Lakes water levels to future climate change scenarios and compares them to historical lake levels. The potential impacts of those changes in lake levels are substantial. Some of these impacts are examined here as well.

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