Interview: Adapting to a Warmer Climate

  • Researcher Don Scavia says most climate models show further drops in water levels for the Great Lakes. (Photo provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE)

When you think of climate change, maybe you’re thinking of something that’s 50 years away, or maybe 100 years away. But scientists are telling us that things are already changing in the Great Lakes region.

Michigan State University and the University of Michigan have just received $4.2 million in federal money for a new research center to help us understand how things might continue to change, and how we can get ready.

Don Scavia is an aquatic ecologist at the University of Michigan and he’s one of the leaders of
the new center.

Great Lakes water levels from 1918 to 2009

Learn more about the new center

More about Don Scavia


Professor Scavia, how has climate change affected our region so far?

Scavia: Well, you know, it’s interesting. There is a lot of discussion about whether or not the climate is changing or will change in the future. But the climate in this region has already changed. We’re already seeing less ice cover on the lakes, we’re seeing our precipitation, rain and snow, coming in more intense storms than it has in the past, and it’s warming. People that try to run winter-oriented sports in the northern part of the states are certainly recognizing it. People that are seeing the lake levels dropping are recognizing it. And the farmers that are actually trying to deal with the intensification of the storms are feeling it as well.

RW: How are things expected to continue to change?

Scavia: Well, we’re expecting it to be warmer, we’re expecting the winters to be warmer, we’re expecting more of the rain to come in these very intense storms as opposed to the nice gentle rains we’re used to in the summer. A lot of the rain will come in late winter/early spring rather than during the middle part of the summer. Most of the models are suggesting the lake levels will continue to drop into the future.

RW: So what are you most concerned about?

Scavia: I’m concerned about a number of things. I’m concerned about agriculture. I think the warmer temperatures are going to force our farmers into different kinds of crops. Of course, farmers are used to adapting to changing weather but changing on this scale may not be something they’re used to.

RW: How might tourism be affected?

Scavia: Well, winter tourism for sure will be affected if we get less snow and if the lakes don’t freeze solid enough to have our tip-up towns up north. But summer tourism, much of that is around the lakeshores. And as the lake levels decline, marinas become stranded and we have to sort of work on ways to adjust to that.

RW: And you’re talking about adapting to climate change. Is it too late to stop what’s already in motion?

Scavia: Oh no. And there was a while five years ago when no one wanted to talk about adaptation because that they felt that was giving up on mitigation. We now realize that we have to do both. And mitigation is the absolute essential thing to do. We have to stop the increase in emissions, we have to stop the increase in CO2 and the increased effects of global warming overall. But there’s a lot of changes that are happening right now and even if we stopped all the emissions we’re just going to slow down the change in climate for a while.

RW: You know, a lot of people are pretty worried about their jobs right now, health care, maybe education for their kids. How do you make climate change a priority when there are so many other things that seem really pressing?

Scavia: Well, the way the climate is changing affects our daily lives and we need to address that. You know, not all the solutions, not all the adaption strategies are very costly. There are things we can build into our existing processes and existing decision making to prepare us for the future in ways that don’t necessarily cost us an awful lot of money.

Don Scavia is one of the leaders of a new research center on climate change and the Great Lakes. Thank you very much for coming in.

It was a pleasure.

Don Scavia says his center is going to be working with cities and businesses and farmers to try to get ready for a warmer climate in Michigan.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.