A Crystal Ball for the Great Lakes

  • Courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video, Flickr

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Great Lakes are incredibly complex. There are just a lot of moving parts.

A new project is taking on a giant task… to try to predict the future of the Great Lakes and what we might want the region to look like.

21 research institutions from the U.S. and Canada are collaborating on the Great Lakes Futures Project. 

It’s not just a classroom exercise.  Along with researchers and grad students, government officials from the U.S. and Canada are involved, and so are industry and environmental groups.

This week, people from around the basin got together for their first workshop. 

“I’ve witnessed us doing haphazard good things in the Great Lakes, but it’s always repairing the damage done, it’s always reactive.”

That’s Gail Krantzberg. She’s the director of the Center for Engineering and Public Policy at McMaster University. She’s also the co-chair of the project.

“This is an opportunity to actually set a path forward for the next 20-50 years, where everybody understands what needs to be done and we finally have a forward-looking vision about how to make the Lakes excellent and resilient to change.”

One of the things that’s sort of unusual about this project is that it’s not just a bunch of professors sitting around debating each other. Krantzberg says they intentionally put grad students in charge of the research.

“There’s a lot of gray hair here. We really need to get youth mentored now, so that when I retire in… whatever… 20, 30 years – I’m being optimistic – that there are excellent leaders who have taken up the charge of making the lakes great.”

So – these teams of grad students (with faculty mentors) spent the past three months researching the biggest things that drive change in the Great Lakes region.  Things like energy, economics, pollution… climate change… invasive species.

Matt Cooper is a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame.

“You can imagine just pulling all this information together and trying to find a picture out of that and then projecting that into the future, we’re talking about literally hundreds, maybe thousands of variables that affect conditions in the basin. So daunting, very daunting.”

Yesterday, the student teams presented their work. They laid out a couple different scenarios for the future. So… for example, the team assigned to invasive species had four different possible futures.  They had to imagine what the future might look like if regulations on ships change… or what might happen if we don’t close canals.

It was a tough crowd.  The students got grilled.

Scavia: “The room was filled with some very hardened, practical people that’ve been dealing with these problems for a long time.”

Don Scavia directs the Graham Institute at the University of Michigan. He’s another chair of the project. He says they set things up this way on purpose. He says he likes making people a little uncomfortable.

“So what we have is a mix of innovation and ideas for the future with a sort of been there, done that mentality, and we think the tension between those two things are going to get us new ideas that wouldn’t come to the table if we did either one by themselves.”

And in fact… that’s one of the things that drew George Kuper to the workshop. He’s with the Council of Great Lakes Industries. 

“We look at future scenarios quite often and we too rarely have gotten the perspective of the people who are going to have to live in that future.”

Next, everyone – with all these different points of view – will sit down together and imagine four possible futures for the Great Lakes.  They’ll take a look at what policies are in place and where we’re heading as a region… and whether we want that kind of future. They’ll have another workshop, and then they’ll take the show on the road to Ottawa and Washington D.C. to get lawmakers involved.

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