“There is a lot of really great work going on across the Great Lakes region at the state, local and regional levels,” said GLISA Program Manager Dr. Jenna Jorns. “What we need to move forward are … ongoing collaborations to draw on each other’s strengths and move all of our projects forward together.”
GLISA hosted a second biannual Great Lakes Adaptation Forum in 2016 to provide an opportunity for people to get together and share their work and strategies. The event included 150 registered attendees from the United States and Canada, representing universities, nonprofits, First Nations and tribal governments, federal agencies, and state and local officials.
Climate in the Great Lakes region has become warmer in recent decades, with relatively more of the warming during the cooler times of year, said GLISA Co-Director Jeff Andresen. While not all climate models agree on whether or not the region will get wetter or drier as a whole, he said most models suggest somewhat more annual precipitation in the future, with most of the additional precipitation coming during the winter months, and in extreme events. These conditions can impact water management, businesses and natural resources.
Since climate predictions and trends are a constantly moving target, he said it is trickier for infrastructure planners to know what to expect. Since those government officials have to plan for extended timeframes, a shifting climate introduces a new variable that’s harder to prepare for. For example, some communities in the Great Lakes region still use combined sewers that move storm water and wastewater through the same pipes. These pipes need to be built to withstand flows up to specific recurrence intervals – like a 50-year or 100-year storm – but due to climate change the pipes could see stronger storm events more frequently.
According to Alex Bryan, climate scientist and postdoctoral fellow with the Northeast Climate Science Center, the unique interaction between the Great Lakes and the atmosphere has its own effect on the region’s climate – as evidenced by “lake effect” snowfall. With shrinking ice cover due to warming temperatures, the warmer, more open waters could lead to an increase of lake effect precipitation, Bryan said – possibly in the form of lake effect rain.
While another Great Lakes Adaptation Forum isn’t happening until 2018, Bryan said the event is coordinated with the National Adaptation Forum, which will take place in Saint Paul, Minnesota, from May 9-11, 2017. In the meantime, lessons learned from the 2016 workshop are helping communities work together to locate resources and strengthen adaptation efforts in the United States and Canada.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on March 30, 2017, to correct the dates of the National Adaptation Forum.
By Tricia Mitchell
Environment and Climate Change Canada
US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
How and why is climate change impacting the Great Lakes? How is it affecting our future? What are we doing about it?
As part of its fifth assessment report published in 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” The World Economic Forum, in its Global Risks Report this year, also recognized the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation “as the most impactful risk for the years to come, ahead of weapons of mass destruction.”
Climate change effects are being experienced in the Great Lakes. Effects observed across the basin include warming temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, decreased ice coverage, and variations to historic fluctuations of water levels. For example, over the last 60 years (1950-2010), the Great Lakes basin has experienced an increase in average annual air temperatures between 0.8-2.0 degrees C (1.4-3.6 F), with this warming trend projected to continue, according to a 2015 State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes basin report.
In the last century, surface water temperatures of the Great Lakes have increased by as much as 3.5 degrees C (6.3 F) and are projected to continue to increase. More work is needed to understand the full impact of these changes on Great Lakes water quality and the health of the aquatic ecosystem.
Recognizing the potential impacts of climate change on Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health, Canada and the United States incorporated a Climate Change Impacts Annex in the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). The Annex is focused on coordinating efforts to identify, quantify, understand, and predict climate impacts on the quality of waters of the Great Lakes, and sharing information that Great Lakes resource managers need to proactively address these impacts. Implementation of this Annex is led by Environment and Climate Change Canada and US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In addition, a new product known as the “Great Lakes Climate Quarterly” was developed for use by government managers and practitioners, as well as stakeholders and the public. These quarterlies are available at binational.net and provide a quick and easy-to-understand overview of the latest season’s weather and water level conditions, weather and water level-related impacts, and an outlook for the upcoming quarter. Canada and the US also have a number of other interesting projects underway that are of value to this Agreement, including the Great Lakes Evaporation Network and the Lake Level Viewer.
For the next three years, the work under this Annex will involve examining what key science gaps identified in the “State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes Basin” report can be addressed, as well as supporting the implementation of the other GLWQA issue annexes in order to ensure that climate change impacts are being taken into consideration in the overall implementation of the Agreement.
The work under this Annex to understand how climate change is affecting processes now, and may affect processes in the future, is important to making informed management decisions for the Great Lakes.
Tricia Mitchell is the GLWQA Climate Change Impacts Annex Canadian Co-Lead.
Doug Kluck is the GLWQA Climate Change Impacts Annex US Co-Lead.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Dec. 14, 2016, to clarify information on air and surface water temperature increases.
Climate change is expected to impact locations across the globe, including the Great Lakes. Experts say warmer temperatures, more severe spring storms and reduced ice cover will make it easier for harmful algal blooms to grow and remain in lake waters. What’s more, it seems that winter isn’t putting a brake on algal growth in Lake Erie – just changing the type of algae.
Globally, this year is on track to be the warmest on record. Last year, the Great Lakes experienced a warmer and drier winter than usual thanks to the El Niño effect from the Pacific Ocean. That warmth kept ice cover low on the Great Lakes, and thanks to a relatively dry spring the 2016 algal bloom on Lake Erie was much smaller than in recent years. But are these trends or simply outliers? It’s complicated.
Common sense would suggest that as the Great Lakes climate warms up, ice cover would be reduced. There are other factors too, according to Jia Wang, ice climatologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The major player is the jet stream encircling the globe in the northern latitudes. As the jet stream fluctuates, colder and warmer air moves around to follow it. In some years, like the winters of 2013-14 and 2014-15, the jet stream’s shape drags frigid arctic air from Alaska and Canada southeastward, leading to colder temperatures and thus greater ice cover on the Great Lakes.
Wang said data on ice cover for the Great Lakes only goes back to 1973, but there appears to be a cycle showing increasingly reduced ice cover into the ‘90s before a rebound in the 2010s. Based on the data, the basin lost 26 percent of its maximum ice cover from 1973 through 2015, with Lake Superior losing the most – about 39 percent. Cold winters starting in 2013 and 2014 brought ice cover to levels seen in the late 1970s, though.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) Research Manager Ram Yerubandi says lake water temperatures have been increasing, according to decades of available data. Less ice cover in the winter means the lakes could see increased evaporation, which in turn would reduce water levels. Climate change models for the Great Lakes are split on whether the region could see decreased water levels. Models show increased precipitation, particularly through more spring storms which could mean more nutrient runoff for harmful algal blooms to feast upon in the summer.
Warmer Temperatures and Less Ice Could Strengthen Algal Blooms
Less ice cover could bring a host of other changes to the Great Lakes ecosystem. Arthur Zastepa, research scientist with ECCC, said there are algae called diatoms that bloom during the winter in Lake Erie. These brown algae form their blooms under the ice and in cracks, attaching themselves to it so they can grow.
“Life is thriving out there in the winter time,” Zastepa said. “However, we don’t quite understand the link between wintertime production and the effect it has on hypoxia (low-oxygen conditions) and algal blooms in the summertime and the mechanisms responsible.”
Zastepa said scientists are still trying to understand what happens to these blooms when the spring hits, though recent investigations suggest that they settle into the sediment and begin to break down when temperatures rise, contributing to hypoxia.
Brown algae isn’t as bad as the blue-green variety known as cyanobacteria, which can produce toxins associated with harmful algal blooms. After nutrient-rich runoff enters the water system in the spring, blue-green algae can explode into blooms in July that last into October.
This year, while the larger bloom in Lake Erie had broken up by October, patches of it were still growing well into the latter part of that month. Zastepa said a warmer fall could be keeping those warm water-loving cyanobacteria going. Scientists are looking for these blooms earlier and later in their “growing season.”
A dry summer also could play a role. If major rain events drive a lot of nutrients into Lake Erie in the spring and are then followed by a drought keeping the water column stable and stagnant, those potentially toxic cyanobacteria can thrive. While forecasts for 2017 only go through February, the US Climate Prediction Center expects wetter weather in the Great Lakes region during that period.
Heavier Spring Rains Could Provide More Food for Algae
There are additional climate impacts, and scientists are still trying to find out how they are connected to each other. Timothy Davis, a NOAA research scientist, said more spring rainfall in the region due to climate change could mean more nutrients entering the lakes and increase the overall flow from tributaries into the lakes. More rainfall also increases the likelihood of sediment washing into the lakes, reducing the amount of light getting into the water – which in turn could impact how summer blooms form and how toxic they become.
There are studies suggesting the most dominant blooming form (and potentially toxic) cyanobacteria microcystis produces more toxins at higher water temperatures and in a more nutrient-rich environment. Those same higher water temperatures could negatively impact invasive mussel species in the Great Lakes, whose filter-feeding methods further reduce competition for microcystis. There also haven’t been any studies completed on how climate change would impact the ability of the United States and Canada to achieve 40 percent nutrient loading reductions into Lake Erie, Davis said. Those unknowns make it hard for models to predict what could happen in the future in terms of bloom size and intensity, he said.
Climate change occurs on a decadal time scale and experiments take place on significantly shorter scales. Davis says climate models have a hard time making regional predictions on what will happen in the future with the Great Lakes, though trends suggest it will be hotter and generally drier, punctuated with severe storms.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
Preparing for a literal rainy day can save millions of dollars in the era of climate change. With the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, the climate around the globe will be changing over the coming decades. Some communities, including those around the Great Lakes, are already trying to get ahead of climate change to prepare their infrastructure and residents for what’s coming.
Toronto is one city that has been working to adapt to climate change for nearly a decade. Mark Bekkering, manager of implementation and support of the city’s Environment & Energy Division, said a 2007 Climate Change Action Plan included recommendations to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. The plan also sparked discussion and research on how the city could prepare for major and minor climatic changes.
“Since none of the research done to that date could help us identify (how) extreme weather events would change for Toronto, given the local impact of the Great Lakes and our geography and topography, we decided to commission our own climate modelling to see how extreme weather would change for the next 30-plus years,” Bekkering said.
That report, adopted by the City Council in February 2013, predicts that in the extreme range, Toronto will face more frequent extreme rain events that cause flooding by 2050, and more extreme heat events in the summer months. By a coincidence, in 2013 Toronto faced two extreme weather events in line with what the report forecasted: a severe rain event in July that flooded tens of thousands of homes and knocked out power to the west side of the city, and an ice storm around Christmas that knocked out power across town for up to a week in some areas. Bekkering said those incidents “gave the motivation” to accelerate the city’s adaptation work.
A consulting firm was commissioned to help the city create a “climate change risk assessment process and tool” to help identify future issues for a property, department, organization or area of the city. From there, Bekkering said, those groups can take steps to mitigate high-risk parts of Toronto. For example, the Transportation Services Department learned that control boxes for traffic signals can malfunction in extreme heat events, so workers installed cooling fans that turn on once temperatures reach a certain point. The city also is looking at backup power generation at key intersections in case of an outage.
Toronto is enhancing its culvert management system by standardizing inspection and maintenance to help reduce the risk of blockage and collapse. Bekkering said the city is bringing broader private and public sector service providers – like telecommunication companies, the Enbridge oil pipeline company, and provincial agencies – into the discussion to see where they can identify risks and work together on understanding common priorities, such as urban flood risks. These groups also are identifying interdependencies that could be affected by extreme weather. For example, subways rely on electrical power, so spending millions to make the subways resilient to flooding and heat won’t mean nearly as much if electrical utilities don’t take action to reduce their vulnerability to flooding and heat.
On the opposite end of the Great Lakes is Milwaukee, where officials believe the greatest threat from climate change is an increased risk of severe storms causing major flooding. Milwaukee suffered “100-year storms” in 2008 and 2010 that caused stormwater and sanitary sewer system back-ups and subsequent backflows into people’s homes. Erick Shambarger, environmental sustainability director for Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office, said the city put together a “flooding study task force” following the 2010 storm – recognizing that severe storms are on course to become more frequent in the future. Milwaukee’s sewer infrastructure isn’t built to withstand storms of that magnitude, he said.
The city is tackling the problem in multiple ways. Milwaukee has implemented a “Green Streets Stormwater Management Plan,” Shambarger said. That means any time a street is reconstructed due to pothole or pavement issues, it is inspected to see what sort of infrastructure would work there to contend with major rain events. These can include rain gardens, bioswales, or the use of porous pavement that allows more stormwater to go into soil rather than the drainage system. This benefits the groundwater cycle, reduces the amount pouring into stormwater lines and decreases flood risks.
While stormwater and sewage flow into separate pipes in some parts of Milwaukee, the pipes are combined in older parts of the city. As a result, sewage can back up into area homes during severe storms, when the wastewater treatment plant is overwhelmed by combined stormwater and sewage.
Shambarger said another problem stems from pipes connecting people’s homes to the public line: if those lines aren’t properly maintained, they can become leaky and discharge sewage and stormwater into groundwater. Milwaukee has pilot programs to help homeowners replace those private lines, but Shambarger said the money isn’t there to get a handle on the entire problem.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has its own project to help deal with flood risks with the County Grounds Basin, a way of containing heavy amounts of rain in a specific area to avoid floods. The $90 million project can retain and store 315 million gallons of water during a severe storm, bringing excess water from the Underwood Creek into the basin by way of an underground tunnel. The basin drains out to the Menomonee River, taking up to four days if the basin is completely full.
Elsewhere in the city, Shambarger said officials are considering converting unoccupied, abandoned and foreclosed properties into storm reservoirs, channeling that backflow floodwater to those properties’ basements to spare occupied homes. This can be the equivalent of 600 55-gallon rain barrels on one parcel, he said, with some properties holding up to 44,400 gallons. The basements would be covered with turf after the house is demolished so that it can better fit in within the neighborhoods.
Shambarger added that Milwaukee officials also are interested in combating the “heat island effect,” where the pavement causes the area around it to get hotter than it would otherwise. This could include removing pavement, which in turn helps the stormwater runoff issue.
The cities of Toronto and Milwaukee both recognize that property owners will need to adapt to a changing climate. Bekkering said Toronto has set up an extreme weather page on its website to give advice to homeowners on how they can prepare and protect their homes from rain, ice, extreme heat and wind. The city also is working with private property management companies and owners to evaluate how resilient their buildings are to severe weather events.
Milwaukee has set up a Better Buildings Challenge to cut energy use in commercial buildings throughout the city, offering free assessments and loan financing to building owners that want to upgrade their properties. These can range from adding renewable energy sources to improving energy or water efficiency. Shambarger said the city also has residential programs to help homeowners purchase solar panels for their homes or to secure loans for energy efficiency upgrades, and is working to improve energy efficiency at manufacturing plants.
“Everything we’re talking about is adapting to climate change, but that’s all in addition to work on energy efficiency and climate mitigation,” Shambarger said.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
For the next several months, the IJC will be talking with citizens about what kind of a job the governments of Canada and the United States are doing to restore and protect the Great Lakes. It’s one of the accountability mechanisms built into the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
In addition to holding meetings around the basin, the IJC has launched ParticipateIJC, a website for sharing conversations and videos from those meetings and gathering public comment on progress made by our governments. We also will host an online discussion every month until June 2017 on a topic related to the lakes.
In November, we’re inviting discussion on how to facilitate more meaningful public engagement in work under the Agreement, and the efforts needed to be more inclusive of First Nations, minority communities, the younger generation and other basin citizens. In December, we will talk about how to anticipate and adapt to climate change impacts.
When I talk about the IJC’s public engagement process, people ask me whether it is really worth their effort to participate. Do citizens have any real power to affect the future of the Great Lakes? In my experience, yes. I have organized and participated in a great many IJC public consultations and have seen how a chorus of strong voices, or even a single thoughtful comment, can change the outcome.
If citizens had not demanded action at certain times, we would not have limits on phosphorus in laundry detergent, funding to clean up Areas of Concern or conservation of dunes and other treasured natural areas. The commitment by governments to make Lake Superior the pilot project for zero discharge of persistent toxic substances and the innovative efforts that followed resulted from a comment by one person at an IJC public meeting.
So your voice can indeed make a difference. The IJC invites you to read comments and post about the recent progress report by the governments of Canada and the United States at ParticipateIJC.org. The governments explain their work under the Agreement in presentations that may be viewed on the site.
Public support was critical for addressing the challenges faced by the Great Lakes in the past and will be critical for addressing the challenges of today and tomorrow. The IJC is striving to facilitate dialogue among citizens in both of our countries and we look forward to hearing from you!
Frank Bevacqua is the public information officer in the IJC’s US Section Office in Washington, D.C., office.
The first progress report under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement will cover familiar topics from earlier versions of the Agreement such as nutrients, chemicals and Areas of Concern and also bring an increased focus to newer topics including climate change impacts, groundwater, habitat and invasive species.
The Progress Report of the Parties (PROP) will be released in the near future by the governments of Canada and the United States, the parties that signed the Agreement. It will document actions to restore and protect the Great Lakes as well as work by the two countries to set binational targets and coordinate domestic actions.
Excessive nutrients in the water contribute to toxic and nuisance algal blooms, and experts identified the nutrient phosphorus as a major factor. In February 2016, the governments adopted several new targets to reduce phosphorus entering Lake Erie that were largely consistent with 2014 recommendations from the IJC.
These reductions are necessary to minimize oxygen-depleted “dead zones,” maintain algal species consistent with a healthy ecosystem and prevent cyanobacteria levels that threaten human or ecosystem health. The governments are working to develop domestic action plans by 2018 to achieve the reductions.
Pollution and other human activities can prevent the normal use of Great Lakes waters and result in beneficial use impairments such as restrictions on eating the fish, beach closings and habitat loss. Work to restore beneficial water uses in Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) has been sufficient to formally remove seven areas from the list of 43 AOCs designated nearly 30 years ago. Efforts are underway to restore water uses in remaining AOCs and the PROP is expected to report on the status of efforts in each of the locations.
Chemicals of mutual concern such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flame retardants known as PBDEs can damage aquatic ecosystems and threaten human health when people eat contaminated fish. Binational actions to date include designating the first eight chemicals of mutual concern. Strategies to reduce the release of these chemicals will be developed to fulfill Agreement objectives and protect human health and the environment.
The Agreement calls on the two countries to develop lake ecosystem objectives and Lakewide Action and Management Plans (LAMPs) for each of the Great Lakes and their connecting channels. In response to these commitments, a draft Lake Superior LAMP was released in November 2015 and a draft Nearshore Framework was released in May 2016.
The 2012 Agreement recognizes that groundwater quality can impact the Great Lakes. In May 2016, the governments released a report on Great Lakes groundwater science that examines connections to surface water quality, delivery of contaminants and nutrients, role in aquatic habitats and impacts to groundwater from urban development and climate change.
The PROP is expected to report on actions to address issues such as climate change impacts, habitat conservation and discharges from ships. Both countries have implemented regulations to reduce the risk of introducing aquatic invasive species from discharges of ships’ ballast water, including stringent binational enforcement of ballast water exchange requirements. No new aquatic invasive species from ballast water have been reported in the Great Lakes since 2006.
The IJC wants to hear your views on progress by the governments to fulfill their commitments under the Agreement and whether the PROP is a useful report. There are many opportunities to join the discussion and provide comments during the IJC’s upcoming public engagement period.
Frank Bevacqua is the public information officer at the IJC’s US Section Office in Washington, D.C.
The IJC also keeps an eye on other events, opportunities and interesting items in the basin that may interest readers (and motivate you to participate).
Rulemaking: This sounds boring, but it’s worthy of notice. The US Environmental Protection Agency is asking for public input on plans to establish public notification requirements for combined sewer overflow discharges in the Great Lakes. That is, overflows that occur when wastewater systems carrying stormwater and sanitary sewage in the same pipes are overwhelmed by heavy storms, and discharge untreated sewage into waterways. The EPA wants to hear your ideas for potential approaches to notification that can better protect public health. If you drink water, swim or fish, you may wish to drop them a line. Go here to comment before the end of the day on Friday, Sept. 23.
Chime in for change: The government of Canada is inviting residents to help develop a plan to address climate change and create new opportunities in clean technology. Officials are asking people to join a conversation on emission reductions, putting a price on carbon, and other topics. You can submit your ideas here. A public consultation page includes ways to add your input to other activities, too.
The IJC is partnering with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper to gather and share Great Lakes Watermark stories—written, spoken, or filmed—that connect the personal, emotional and cultural ways we use and value our precious shared waters. Watermark stories are being archived on a special Watermark Project site. Have a Great Lakes story to share? Submit yours online today.