Investigating Great Lakes Water Levels

A panel is speeding up its study into one reason why upper Great Lakes water levels
might be dropping. Sarah Hulett reports:

Transcript

A panel is speeding up its study into one reason why upper Great Lakes water levels
might be dropping. Sarah Hulett reports:


The International Joint Commission is investigating a theory that a 1960s dredging
project in the Saint Clair River has drained away water from the upper Great Lakes.


Frank Bevacqua is a spokesman for the IJC. He says the decision to finish the study
a year early was prompted in part by angry lakefront property owners who want
answers about dropping lake levels:


“And with that information, the commission will be in a position to decide whether or
not there’s a need to request remedial measures from the US and Canada.”


If the commission finds there is a problem in the St. Clair River, it could recommend
that the US and Canadian governments fund a project to slow the water loss in
hopes the lake levels rise.


For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Hulett.

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Ten Threats: Saving Wetland Remnants

  • Winous Point Marsh Conservancy and Duck Hunting Club's Roy Kroll collects millet. (Photo by Julie Grant)

Among the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is the loss of thousands of square miles of wetlands along the lakes. From Superior to Ontario and on up the St. Lawrence Seaway, we’ve lost some of the most important wildlife habitat along the edges of the lakes. For example, 200 years ago, much of the southern shore of Lake Erie was a huge swamp. Most of those wetlands have been drained and filled since European settlement. Julie Grant reports on efforts to maintain the little bit that remains:

Transcript

In our next report in the series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes, we’re going to hear about changes to a large area that drains into the lakes. Our guide through the series is the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham:


Among the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is the loss of thousands of square miles of wetlands along the lakes. From Superior to Ontario and on up the St. Lawrence Seaway, we’ve lost some of the most important wildlife habitat along the edges of the lakes. For example, 200 years ago, much of the southern shore of Lake Erie was a huge swamp. Most of those wetlands have been drained and filled since European settlement. Julie Grant reports on efforts to maintain the little bit that remains:


Researchers from the Cleveland area park district have been driving hours to get here to this bit of swamp nearly every day since last spring. Biologist Rick Spence and his partner wade through two feet of boot-sucking mud. They’re looking for turtles. Blanding’s turtles, to be exact. With a distinctive bright yellow chin and throat, it’s designated as a ‘species of special concern’ in Ohio…


“The Blanding’s originally were found in this area in the southern portion of Lake Erie, along this basin area. And so there’s a lot of the Blanding’s in here. It doesn’t get any better than this. We have nothing like this really around the Cleveland area that I know of.”


This area is the 150 year-old Winous Point Marsh Conservancy and Duck Hunting Club. It’s the largest privately owned coastal wetland in Ohio. It’s a thin strip of marsh that runs eight and a half miles along the shore.


Roy Kroll has been Executive Director of the Duck Hunting Club for more than twenty years. He keeps busy balancing the needs of researchers, biology classes, and reporters.


Kroll takes me onto the marsh in a wooden boat. He uses an old-fashioned pole to push us through water that’s only a couple of inches deep. It’s slow and quiet. He stops and uses the pole to slap the water for a call and response with migratory birds. (slap) He can hear who’s hiding in the cattails, arrowhead, and other emergent wetland plants…


(Kroll slaps water twice, birds respond)


“Well, looks like the teal have left and the rail are here.”


Kroll says the 4,500 acre marsh harbors over 100,000 waterfowl, mostly ducks, during November’s peak migration. There aren’t many places like this left on the Lake Erie coastline. More than 90 percent of the region’s wetlands have been drained. Most of that was done in the mid-1800s.


The area was once known as the Great Black Swamp. It stretched from Lake Erie all the way to Indiana. Much of it was under a dense canopy of hardwood trees. Kroll says it was a great system to filter river waters entering the lake. But European settlers and land speculators cut down most of the trees, dug ditches and straightened stream channels to move water quickly off the land. They built roads and transformed the swamp into rich, productive farm fields.


“You have to put yourself in the time period. Rightfully so, that was considered progress. And now we have to look back and say, well, yeah, it was progress and now it looks like it’s not progress. And if we’re not going to eliminate all these wetlands, we’re going to have to take some proactive measures to do it.”


Even at Winous Point, some of the wetlands are in poor condition. Standing on a man-made dike we look one way and see all kinds of plants: cattails, duckweed, and lily pads. But look to the side that’s not protected by the dike, and there’s no vegetation. Hand-drawn maps from the 1800s show a diversity of plants here, but now it looks like an open bay…


“What we’re looking at now is an open water wetland. And again, with no plants, we don’t have the structure for fish, invertebrates, and even plankton and algae to colonize on plant stems. It’s nowhere near as productive.”


Kroll says it’s not nearly as productive as the protected area. He says high lake levels, invasive carp, and pollution running off the land and into the rivers that drain into the lake have all made it tough for marsh vegetation to survive. Without plants, Kroll says the wetland can’t clean water running off the land…into the lake. He says it’s unrealistic to expect a short band of remnant wetlands to do the job of a hundreds of square miles of swamp forest.


“The key is to start at the upstream far upstream head of the watershed and begin restoring wetlands from there down to here.”


There are some efforts to re-store small parts of the Great Black Swamp. But Kroll says it’s also important to protect the little bit of the original coastal wetlands that are still left.


For the GLRC, I’m Julie Grant.

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Lake Levels Low Despite Rain

Even though it’s been a rainy summer, the shipping industry, boaters and beachgoers are still dealing with low water levels on the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams reports:

Transcript

Even though it’s been a rainy summer, the shipping industry, boaters and beachgoers
are still
dealing with low water levels on the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Rebecca
Williams reports:


All the rain this season has raised hope for an end to low water levels. But Lakes
Michigan,
Huron and Superior continue to be much lower than average for the fourth year in a row.


Frank Quinn is a hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration. He
says rain is not the only factor affecting lake levels. Temperatures and
evaporation also affect
them. Quinn says the recent rain has helped, but more rain is needed.


“We’ve averaged for the last year about 90% of our normal precipitation…we still
haven’t had
enough continuing rainfall to bring the levels back up to what their long-term
averages would
be.”


Rain has helped raise the lower lakes, Ontario and Erie, but NOAA’s 6-month outlook
shows low
levels continuing on the upper lakes through early spring.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Ijc to Study Lake Superior Water Releases

An international watchdog group hopes to study the effect of water flowing out of Lake Superior on the rest of the Great Lakes. It is thought that by controlling water from Superior, scientists can better control damaging level fluctuations in the other lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has the story:

Transcript

An international watchdog group hopes to study the effect of water flowing out of Lake Superior on the rest of the Great Lakes. It is thought that by controlling water from Superior, scientists can better control damaging level fluctuations in the other lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has the story:

Record high lake levels in the mid-1980’s caused extensive erosion, and below normal levels the past three years have forced ships to carry less cargo, to avoid running aground. The International Joint Commission’s Frank Bevaqua says this begs the question: Is the flow of water out of Lake Superior being handled correctly?

“There’s also the communities along the shoreline that may be susceptible to flooding and erosion and the recreational use of the lakes, particularly by boaters. And then there’s the environmental impact, which is probably the area in which we have the least precision in terms of what we know.”

The IJC is asking Washington and Ottawa to pay for a three-year study of the effect water flowing out of Lake Superior has on the other Great Lakes.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mike Simonson.

Easier Start to Shipping Season

The Soo Locks and Saint Lawrence Seaway are opening to higher lake levels and mild ice conditions, making for an easier start to the commercial shipping season. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has more:

Transcript

The Soo Locks and Saint Lawrence Seaway are opening to higher lake levels and mild ice conditions, making for an easier start to the commercial shipping season. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has the story:

Lake levels have been low for the past four years, and the latest numbers from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers indicate this new season will start with three of the five Great Lakes below average.

February numbers show
Lake Superior is 6 inches below normal, Lakes Michigan and Huron are 7 inches below the average since they started keeping records in 1918. Those numbers are 6 inches better than a year ago. Duluth-Superior Port Director Davis Helberg hopes this is a trend.

“This is cyclical, they will rebound. History tells us that they always do. And I hope we’re at the bottom of the trough but so far this winter hasn’t showed much promise of starting to get back to have the pendulum swing the other way. We just have had such a wimpy winter.”

Lake Erie is at its normal level, while Lake Ontario is 3 inches above normal.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mike Simonson in Superior, Wisconsin.

Hope for Great Lakes Water Levels

Long term climate projections predict conditions will be right to at least temporarily stop the decline in Great Lakes water levels. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory is looking at how this winter’s climate might affect the lakes’ water levels.

Transcript

Long-term climate projections predict conditions will be to at least temporarily stop the decline in Great Lakes water levels. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.


Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie are all at their lowest levels in 35 years. But, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -or NOAA– say its climate outlooks for this winter indicate there’ll be a normal amount of precipitation and well below normal temperatures. Cold weather means more ice cover on the lakes, and that prevents some evaporation. Cynthia Sellinger is a hydrologist at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab.


“So NOAA’s forecast, saying that we’ll have below normal temperatures means that we may have a decent ice cover and we may not have winter evaporation. So, if that happens and if we get a decent snow pack, we may not decline anymore.”


But, the experts say it’s still too early to say whether climate will change enough to reverse the lower water level trend on the Great Lakes. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Lester Graham.

Shipping Season Docks Early

Much of the shipping on the Great Lakes is expected to end early this year. The economy has reduced freighter traffic and some ships are already docked for the winter. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham explains:

Transcript

Much of the shipping on the Great Lakes is expected to end early this year. The economy has reduced freighter traffic and some ships are already docked for the winter. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.


The last couple of years, the shipping season has lasted longer. That’s because ships have been forced to carry lighter loads because of low water levels in the Great Lakes. And that meant more trips to carry the same tonnage. This year, though, some ships are tying up for the winter early. The slower economy has hit Great Lakes shipping, particularly those ships carrying raw materials for the steel industry. According to a report in the Toledo-Blade, iron ore mines have cut production and steel mills have produced significantly less steel. While only a handful of ships are berthed for the winter right now, a spokesperson for the Lake Carriers’ Association was quoted as saying they expect to see more early lay-ups. The shipping companies are hoping for an economic turnaround next year. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Ijc to Monitor Lake Flows

A commission that oversees water bodies shared by the U.S. and Canada is expanding its study of water levels in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly has more:

Transcript

A commission that oversees water bodies shared by the U.S. and Canada is expanding its study of water levels in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports.


The International Joint Commission recently announced it would review its regulation of water flowing in and out of Lake Superior. Any changes to Superior’s water flow could affect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, as well. The commission is already studying similar changes in the regulation of Lake Ontario’s water. Officials say the studies were prompted by residents’ complaints about low water levels as well as the expected onset of climate change. Scientists predict this could also affect lake levels.


Peter Yee is the manager of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence regulation office for Environment Canada.


“We have the opportunity to dialogue with the public so that we have a mutual understanding and appreciation of everybody’s needs and concerns, the benefits of regulation and also the limitations of regulation.”


Public hearings are scheduled to begin this fall.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.

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.