Great Lakes Record Lows

  • Lower water levels on the Great Lakes make some channels such as the Muskegon River too shallow for big freighters to enter fully loaded. (Photo by Lester Graham)

The Great Lakes are hitting new record low water levels. The water is so low that
big 1000-foot cargo ships are running aground. There’s debate about
whether this is just part of the historic ups and downs of the Great Lakes, or if it’s the
effects of global warming. Lester Graham reports from Lake Michigan’s Muskegon
River, a trouble spot for some of the big ships:

Transcript

The Great Lakes are hitting new record low water levels. The water is so low that
big 1000-foot cargo ships are running aground. There’s debate about
whether this is just part of the historic ups and downs of the Great Lakes, or if it’s the
effects of global warming. Lester Graham reports from Lake Michigan’s Muskegon
River, a trouble spot for some of the big ships:


Here at the end of the pier next to the lighthouse, it’s cold, it’s icy and it’s windy. And
it’s hard to imagine a ship navigating its way into this channel, but ships do on a
regular basis to bring coal to a power plant. This year, however, some of the ships
have ended up aground here simply because of lower lake levels and more sediment
in the channel:


“There’s been three this summer here in Muskegon. They go hard up on the sand.”


Dennis Donahue is the marine superintendent for the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration’s Lake Michigan field station at Muskegon, Michigan. He
says this year’s groundings of cargo ships just hasn’t happened that often in the
past:


“Well, we haven’t had a grounding here, certainly in the last 15 years due to water
levels.”


Lester Graham: “So what’s happening here? What’s going on?”


Donahue: “Well, there’s a couple of things, we’ve got the water levels dropping and
then we’ve got some weather patterns that are carrying sediment to the mouth of the
Muskegon River. So, those two compound and create shoal areas.”


So lower water and a rising bottom mean channels are more shallow. That means
ships have to carry less cargo, and that costs the shippers reportedly a million
dollars per ship per year.


Scientists have been monitoring the dropping lake levels for close to a decade now.
At NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab, Deputy Director Cynthia
Sellinger says she’s been seeing a trend in the weather that’s causing the problem:


“We’re having a lot less precipitation and a lot more evaporation. And that’s
impacting the water levels on the lake.”


Less snow pack and rain mean less water filling the lakes, and with warmer winters
Sellinger says there’s less ice cover to protect the lakes from massive evaporation.
Historically, about 50% of the lakes’ surfaces have been covered by ice. These
days, it’s more like ten to 20%. Cold air hits the warmer water and
carries it away. For Lake Superior alone, a one-inch drop is more than 500 billion
gallons. During the past decade, Superior has lost nearly 13 trillion gallons.


“The upper lakes, Superior, Michigan and Huron, are very close to their record low.
So, it’s approaching an extreme. Superior reached its record low in 1926 and just
this year it broke the record low for September. So, 2007 now is a new record low
for Lake Superior. Lakes Michigan and Huron are approaching their record low.”


Sellinger and her colleagues are not ready to say global warming is causing the
lower lake levels. It might just be a part of a long cycle of ups and downs of the lakes.
But the lower water levels do fit some of the computer model predictions about
global warming.


Lower lake levels causing problems for big cargo ships and marinas catering to
recreational boaters are problems enough. But, some environmentalists say if lower
water levels are caused by global warming, the pressures on the water in the Great
Lakes likely are going to get a lot worse. Andy Buchsbaum heads up the National
Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office:


“The hidden threat of global warming is that not only does it affect Great Lakes water
levels simply because of increased evaporation or increased temperatures changes
precipitation, but the threat it makes to Great Lakes water levels is even greater.
Because global warming, global climate change, is having massive effects already
and is likely to have even greater effects on water supplies in the Southwest, the
Southeast and all over the country. And as those pressures increase, the pressure
to divert Great Lakes water will increase exponentially.”


We don’t know whether new diversions to dry areas of the country could cause as
much of a problem as less precipitation and more evaporation of the Great Lakes
already do. But, it would certainly aggravate the problem. The effects of water
levels dropping further mean more economic hardship for shipping and tourism. And
environmentalists say ecological damage to coastal habitat that fish and other
wildlife need to survive could be on a scale that’s not been seen on the Great Lakes
in recorded history.


For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Sea Ice Melting Faster Than Predicted

  • Arctic sea ice is melting at a faster rate than the most advanced computer models had projected. (Photo by M. Tsukernik, courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center)

New research shows Arctic sea ice is melting much faster than predicted
by computer models. Rebecca Williams reports the researchers say that
could accelerate the impacts of global warming:

Transcript

New research shows Arctic sea ice is melting much faster than predicted
by computer models. Rebecca Williams reports the researchers say that
could accelerate the impacts of global warming:


Greenhouse gasses trapped in the atmosphere are making the Arctic sea ice
melt. Scientists have been relying on computer models to predict how
fast the ice will melt.


Researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center found actual
measurements show the ice melt is happening about 30 years ahead of
what the models predicted.


Julienne Stroeve is the study’s lead author. She says summertime
Arctic sea ice could be gone completely by the first half of this
century:


“I’m definitely concerned that it’s going to happen in the next 30 or
40 years… It’s a huge climate shift for our planet. I think we’re
going to have a much warmer planet than we’re used to seeing.”


Stroeve says it’s not clear how weather patterns might change, but she
says it’s possible the loss of the sea ice could lead to more natural
disasters such as stronger storms and drought.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

The Price of Global Warming

  • Some industries are working with government to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions. People who are worried about their personal CO2 emissions can buy carbon offsets, but there are dozens of programs, making it confusing. (Photo by Lester Graham)

There’s evidence that the Earth is changing
because of global warming. Glaciers are receding.
Polar ice caps are melting. Weather patterns are
altered. That’s prompted some people to look
for ways to reduce their personal contribution to
global warming. Rebecca Williams reports there
are many new companies that claim to help you do
that… for a price:

Transcript

There’s evidence that the Earth is changing
because of global warming. Glaciers are receding.
Polar ice caps are melting. Weather patterns are
altered. That’s prompted some people to look
for ways to reduce their personal contribution to
global warming. Rebecca Williams reports there
are many new companies that claim to help you do
that… for a price:


Whenever you drive, fly, or ride, you’re emitting carbon dioxide. And it’s not just the way you get around. It’s also any time you turn on lights or plug into an electrical outlet. More than half of the electricity in the U.S. comes from power plants that burn
coal and that’s another major source of carbon dioxide.


It’s a problem because carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas.
The vast majority of scientists agree all this carbon dioxide
that people produce is trapping heat in the atmosphere and making
the planet warmer.


David Archer is a climate scientist at the University of Chicago:


“The problem with fossil fuels is that the cost of that climate
change isn’t paid by the person who makes the decision to use
fossil energy so it’s sort of like a bill we’re leaving to future
generations.”


Some people say there’s a way to pay that bill now. About three
dozen companies and nonprofits have sprung up in the past few
years. They’re selling carbon offsets.


The idea of a carbon offset is to balance out the carbon dioxide
that you emit. In theory, you can do this by investing in
something like tree planting or energy projects that don’t emit
greenhouse gasses, such as wind or solar power.


First, you can go to one of the group’s websites and calculate
your carbon footprint. That’s all the carbon dioxide you produce
by driving, flying, and so on, in a year. North Americans have
especially big footprints.


The companies assign a price per ton of carbon that’s emitted.
You can decide how much of your carbon-emitting you want to
balance out. Then you type in your credit card number and voila… no more guilt.


Well, that’s the idea anyway.


But what if you buy a carbon offset
but you don’t change your behavior? If you keep driving and
flying and using electricity just as much as before, or maybe
more than before, you’re still a part of the problem.


“You’re absolutely still emitting the carbon. The idea is that
you’re balancing it out through reductions elsewhere.”


Tom Arnold is a cofounder of Terrapass. It’s a carbon offset
company:


“Now this isn’t the optimal solution of course – you should stop
driving. But it’s a good way that we can get you involved in the
dialogue and help you reduce emissions somewhere else.”


And you can get a little sticker for your car to show you’re in
the offsetting club. But Tom Arnold admits there aren’t a whole
lot of drivers of huge SUVs buying offsets.


“We have this nice little SUV sticker – it’s pretty expensive and
a horrible seller. Most of our members already drive passenger
cars, very efficient cars. They’re just looking for a tool to
balance the rest of their impact out to zero.”


Erasing your carbon footprint sounds pretty positive, but there
are quite a few critics of the carbon offset industry. They
point out there aren’t any agreed-on standards for what an offset
is, and prices are all over the map. So it’s not always clear
what you’re getting for your money.


Mark Trexler is president of Trexler Climate and Energy Services.
He’s a consultant who reviews the groups selling carbon offsets.
He says you do have to ask questions about what you’re buying:


“Am I putting my money into something that wouldn’t have happened
anyway? Because if somebody would’ve built that windmill anyway
or if they would’ve done whatever it is you’re putting money into
anyway, you’re really not rendering yourself climate neutral.”


Trexler says there are certification programs in the works so
consumers can know more about what they’re buying. But the people
who are buying offsets now say it feels like they’re making a
difference.


Kate Madigan bought offsets. She started thinking about it when
she was awake at night worrying about the world her new baby
would live in:


“Some people say oh, global warming, it’s going to change the
world in 100 years, but I’ll be gone by then. But I think that’s
a horrible way to look at things because we’re leaving the world
to a lot of people that we love.”


Madigan says she doesn’t think carbon offsets alone will really
solve the problem. She says she thinks it’ll take a lot of
harder choices too, like driving less and using less electricity.


Supporters say that’s the real power of offsets. It’s getting
people to talk about the role they play in global warming.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Report Warns Insurers to Face Climate Change

Insurance companies are being urged to face the risks associated with climate change. The world’s oldest insurance market says recent natural disasters have shown the need for new pricing and underwriting models for insurers. The GLRC’s Erin Toner reports:

Transcript

Insurance companies are being urged to face the risks associated with climate change.
The world’s oldest insurance market says recent natural disasters have shown the need
for new pricing and underwriting models for insurers. The GLRC’s Erin Toner reports.


Lloyd’s of London’s new report says the costs of climate change could put insurers out of
business if they don’t make some changes. The report says insurance companies have
been slow to manage the financial risks of emerging threats, such as rising sea levels and
the build-up of greenhouse gases. Rolf Tolle is with Lloyd’s of London.


“You will have maybe certain changes in coverage which is available. You will see
changes in pricing. And you may have for certain, very exposed risks, a situation
that insurance is flatly no longer available.”


Tolle says insurers should take climate change predictions into account when setting
rates, rather than simply relying on historical weather patterns. Last year was the costliest
year ever for the insurance industry – mainly because of hurricanes that hit the U.S.


For the GLRC, I’m Erin Toner.

Related Links

Forecasting Monarch’s Future in Warmer World

Every winter, millions of monarch butterflies migrate from backyards in North America to nestle in trees in Mexico. The weather conditions in the mountains there are perfect for the insect. But scientists say climate change could spell disaster for the species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby has this report:

Transcript

Every winter, millions of monarch butterflies migrate from backyards in
North America to nestle in trees in Mexico. The weather conditions in the
mountains there are perfect for the insect. But scientists say climate change could
spell disaster for the species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby has
this report:


The fir trees in central Mexico are ideal conditions for the monarch
butterflies of North America to spend the winter. The habitat there is cool
and dry.


“They are looking for a refrigerator.”


That’s Karen Oberhauser, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. She
Says the orange-and-black-speckled butterflies spend up to five months there
Before coming north again.


The new study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences. It shows that the biggest threat to the monarch’s Mexican habitat
may be an increase in rainfall. She says that would cause the monarchs to freeze
to death.


“It’s worrisome to me that, in a sense, we humans are kind of conducting this huge experiment and
we don’t know the outcome.”


The long-term climate change could force monarchs to flutter off in search
Of new places to winter. She says if they fail, the results could mean the end
of a species.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Todd Melby.

Related Links

Lake Effect Snow Tied to Global Warming?

A recent study shows a possible link between global warming and lake effect snow. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Richard Annal has more:

Transcript

A recent study shows a possible link between global warming and lake
effect snow. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Richard Annal has more:


The study was published in the Journal of Climate. When compared with the rest of the nation,
researchers found that the Great Lakes region had a significant increase in the amount of
snowfall.


Adam Burnett is an Associate Professor of Geography at Colgate University. He was the lead
researcher of the study. Burnett found that Warmer lake temperatures make ideal conditions for
lake effect snow.


“As cold air begins to blow across these warm lake surfaces that sets up the lake effect snow
processes. And the thinking is that perhaps global warming is being reflected by increases in the
thermal characteristics of the Great Lakes, which are then playing out in the Great Lake effect
snow.”


In the study, Burnett compared the snowfall from fifteen weather stations around the Great Lakes.
He examined records going back over seventy years. Syracuse, New York is one of the nations
snowiest cities. In terms of the amount of snowfall, it had five of it’s worst winters on record in
in the 1990’s, the warmest decade of the twentieth century.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Richard Annal.

What Will Global Warming Bring?

  • Researchers are developing models to try to determine what the effects of global warming will be on the Great Lakes region. Photo by Jerry Bielicki.

Some scientists in the Great Lakes basin are looking at how global warming might be affecting the region, both today and long into the future. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has the story:

Transcript

Some scientists in the great lakes basin are looking at how global warming
Might be affecting the region, both today and long into the future. The
Great lakes radio consortium’s Lester graham reports.


Many researchers in a number of different fields are coming to the same basic conclusion: the earth is warming and it’s affecting the Great Lakes. So far, the effects have been difficult to track, unlike watching the day-to-day changes in the weather. Measuring climate change requires measurements over many decades, or better yet over centuries. There are only a few places where weather measurements have been taken over that long of a period. But, where they have, researchers are finding weather is becoming more chaotic and indications are that the long-term climate is warming.
Many climatologists believe that warming is due at least in part to greenhouse gases, that is, pollution in the upper atmosphere trapping more of the sun’s heat, much in the same way a greenhouse works.


Taylor Jarnigan is a research ecologist with the U-S Environmental Protection agency who’s been looking at one aspect of climate change. He’s been studying whether increasing amounts of lake effect snow from Lake Superior over the past century, especially the past 50 years, is evidence of a change in the temperature of the lake. Preliminary study suggests that the lake’s surface temperature is warming, and that causes more snow when cold air passes over it. But he says the amount of snow has varied widely from year to year.


“Some of this variability is certainly due –in my opinion– to an increasing volatile climate system itself. El niño and la niña are becoming more intense, so you have an increasing oscillation between, say, an usually warm summer followed by an unusually cold winter which tends to produce an unusually large amount of snow.”

The surface temperature of the lake has only been monitored for a few decades, while snowfall depths have been recorded for much longer. Jarnigan says, since there seems to be a direct correlation between the surface temperature of the lake and snowfall, he can calculate the temperature of the lake going back more than a century, and finds that Lake Superior is getting warmer.


When researchers find direct measurements that have been taken for more than a century, they feel fortunate. For example, John Magnuson with the University of Wisconsin has been reviewing the conclusions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That’s the international organization established by the United Nations to study global warming. As a part of that review, Magnuson has been looking over shipping and harbor records that date back 150 years or more to see if there’s evidence of global warming. One thing he’s learned is that lakes and streams aren’t iced over for as long as they once were.


“And in the last hundred-and-fifty years we’ve seen significant changes in lakes around the entire– lakes and streams around the entire northern hemisphere. The date of freezing on the average and the date of break up is changing by about six days per century.”


And Magnuson says that six day change on both ends of the freeze-thaw cycle mean that there’s nearly two weeks less ice coverage than a century ago.


That seems to bolster research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Ecological Research Laboratory. Studies there indicate that over the last several years Great Lakes ice coverage on average is not as far ranging and doesn’t last as long as it did historically.


There’s no certain way to tell what might happen to the Great Lakes if the apparent warming trend continues.


But there are some ways to speculate. There are at least two computer models that try to estimate how much warmer the climate in the Great Lakes region might become by the year 2090. Based on those models, researchers have tried to figure out what that might mean for the area. Peter Sousounis was working at the University of Michigan at the time of that research. He says using either computer model it looks as though crops would produce more. Soybean yields could double. But other predictions are not as beneficial. It looks as though Great Lakes water levels would drop, probably about three feet more than they’ve already dropped, causing some problems for shipping. The study also found algae production would decrease by 10 to 20 percent. That’s important because algae provide the base for the Great Lakes’ food chain. Pine trees might also be all but eliminated from the region, and Sousounis says dangerously high ozone days might occur twice as often.


“Our findings indicate there are some potentially serious consequences in terms of reduced lake levels impacting shipping across the region, some serious economic impacts that if we don’t learn how to deal with these, there are going to be some serious changes in our lifestyles.”


Critics say the models can’t represent all of the variability in nature, so it’s difficult to be sure about any of the predictions. An adjustment here or there can lead to all kinds of alternative scenarios. Sousounis concedes more work needs to be done and more variables plugged into the models, but he’s convinced change will come; the degree of change is the only question.


These days, very few scientists argue against the studies that suggest the earth is warming. John Magnuson with the University of Wisconsin says a few DO argue that the change might merely be natural climate variability – that is, Mother Nature taking an interesting twist– and not necessarily a warm-up caused by manmade greenhouse gases.


“The skeptics, or the more cautious people, what they do when they look at that range of variation over the last thousand years, what they see is there is a signal in the warming that’s coming above the historic variation of climate. And, the climatologists of the world collectively feel there’s very strong evidence that warming is occurring, that greenhouse gases are a very significant part of that warming.”


Magnuson says most mainstream scientists agree climate change is happening, and even dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases won’t prevent some continued global warming over this century. But most say reducing pollution would slow the rise in temperatures and curtail the warming sooner. Only time will tell how that warming will change the Great Lakes region, and all of the researchers we talked to say in the meantime we’ll likely see more chaotic roller coaster type weather patterns as never before in recorded history.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

WHAT WILL GLOBAL WARMING BRING? (Short Version)

  • Researchers are developing models to try to determine what the effects of global warming will be on the Great Lakes region. Photo by Jerry Bielicki.

Researchers are trying to determine how global warming might affect this region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

Researchers are trying to determine how global warming might affect this region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.


Using two different sophisticated computer climate models, researchers are asking questions such as what happens to the water levels in the Great Lakes. Both models predict they drop even farther, causing shipping problems. They predict crops will produce more, and they predict some trees will die off. Peter Sousounis is one of the researchers studying the models. He says the region needs to consider what appears to be happening.


“I’m concerned that we won’t be prepared, we will not have done our homework. I think as a society we can certainly adapt, if we are given enough time. And if we don’t adapt, life might adjust to a new mean state all around.”


While nearly all climatologists believe the earth is warming, not everyone agrees whether the changes will be harmful. Sousounis agrees more research needs to be done to try to determine what the effects might be. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.