Last winter’s polar vortex froze more than just the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes accomplished a rare feat in November: their water levels increased.
CMU is a recognized leader when it comes to Great Lakes research.
With the addition of seven new plants and animals, Michigan now bans 40 non-native species. That means they cannot be possessed or transported in Michigan or the rest of the Great Lakes region.
They’re actually near a wetland, and Schock is working on what will eventually be his dissertation.
He wants to create a mathematical tool that the Department of Environmental Quality will use to determine whether or not a wetland has a ground water connection. If so, the DEQ has jurisdiction over that ecosystem and is able to protect it from being repurposed.
So what does Neil do with these readings?
“All this data that were collecting will go into multivariate ordinal statistics to kinda generate out what we’re seeing in those environments. Taking all those parameters with multiple dimensions and kinda boil them down into a few dimensions so we can visualize what’s happening in those areas.”
This is no small undertaking, and Schock is building this research from the ground up.
You may wonder, ‘what does a wetland have to do with climate change?’ Experts like Don Uzarski, the director of CMU’s Institute for the Great Lakes Restoration, say the answer is a lot.
“Were just starting to realize in the past probably 20 years just how important these small systems are, small or large, to the overall ecosystem and the Great Lakes in particular.”
Uzarski says this murky, unglamorous area is imperative to the health of Michigan’s water system, explaining that wetlands act as the kidneys of Michigan’s larger waterways.
“So anything that we put on the agricultural field or even a dry precipitation or dust that falls on to the field, theres going to be nutrients, theres going to be some level of toxicants associated with that. In this case its going to come through this wetland. Even though its in the center of Michigan its still acting as a filter and processing that material before it makes it down to that drainage ditch eventually makes it to a stream, that will eventually make its way to the Great Lakes.”
Uzarski says Schock’s work is crucial to the health of the United State’s waterways. He says America is essentially running on a single kidney at this point.
“50 percent of wetlands nationwide have been lost. In some regions though, like the Saginaw Bay region we’ve lost 95 percent of the coastal wetlands already. Other states are in much worse shape than we are.”
Back in the field, Schock explains that although he’s pioneering this kind of wetland experimentation, he never feels lost.
“For the most part we’ll let the data lead us, Ya know, data doesn’t lie. Ya just kinda go with what ya got and with the resources that you have, and with sound statistical analysis it will lead you where you wanna go.”
There’s one quality I’ve found in every scientist I talked to for this series. Pride in the Great Lakes, and the state of Michigan.
Schock, says he wants to protect the Great Lakes with his research by stopping potential negative impacts at their source.
“It’s easy to lose sight of where certain things are impacting the Great Lakes. I’ve always been interested in the Great Lakes ecosystem and the health of the Great Lakes, so you gotta get down to where are these impacts coming from. And this is a big part of that.”
Schock says if things continues to run smoothly, his wetland tool should be ready for statewide use in two to three years.
He says the best part of his job is the office he works in. Michigan’s outdoors, the trees, the wildlife and the clean water is one of the defining features of the Great Lakes state. Schock and Uzarski ‘clock in’ every day to ensure those features will still be there when the rest of us ‘clock out’.
The funding comes by grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin Sea Grant.
Dr. Don Uzarski, Director of the IGLR, says this research is crucial to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem.
“Imagine a coastal wetland just along the shoreline of one of the Great Lakes. That coastal wetland is somewhere between a truly aquatic system and something upland. It’s essentially the last line of defence of anything coming off the landscape has to go through that coastal wetland, and that coastal wetland has the function of removing that material before it makes it into the great lakes.”
Uzarski says over time, the U.S. has lost half of its native wetlands.
In certain areas, like the Saginaw Bay region, up to 95 percent of the coastal wetlands have been repurposed or severely impacted by invasive species.
The newly announced funding comes on top of a five-year $10-million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that IGLR researchers are already receiving.
Michigan is home to 3,000 miles of coastline and surrounded by the largest freshwater source in the world. The Michigan Nautical Gathering, being held next month in Lansing, will show our appreciation for it.
Recently I talked to scientists at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, or GLERL, in Ann Arbor to learn more about the specific ways climate change is effecting the Great Lakes.
Dr. Ed Rutherford is a biologist at GLERL. He wasted no time in surprising me with a prediction about the future of the Great Lakes State.
“The trend is that the temperatures will rise, and since really 1998 they’ve generally been going up. So predictions are, this is by the International Panel of Climate Change and scientists from our region, predicted based on climate models that our climate will be like Arkansas or Kentucky’s in the next 40-50 years.”
Rutherford says this would have a dramatic effect on wildlife in Michigan.
Some people argue that the recent record breaking winter Michigan experienced couldn’t occur in the midst of a warming period. But, Dr. Brent Lofgren, another GLERL scientist, says; daily weather patterns and historic climate models are two very different things.
“One of the main things that I think people should know about climate change is not to just judge it by what they’re experiencing right now, but that we have very strong reasons to expect that it will continue in the future. Even though there’s variability in both time and space that can mask it on the local level as you’re looking out the window, it’s really inevitable that it will continue to creep forward if you keep putting more and more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.”
Lofgren says warmer temperatures are making the Great Lakes increasingly habitable for invasive species. These unwanted creatures abuse the natural food web of the Great Lakes Ecosystem. Invasives lock up potential energy and often outcompete natural species in the process.
Dr. Ashley Baldridge is a Benthic Ecologist at GLERL.
She says she has found a dramatic change to a very important part of the Great Lakes food web.
“The most profound change has been reduction of phytoplankton after the widespread proliferation of quagga mussels around the lake. The whole base of the food chain is now severely reduced, so less food for phytoplankton, less food for the smaller prey fish like alewife, and then for the larger predatory fish. So its just taking out productivity at the very basic of base levels.”
Scientists say one of the most significant organisms in the Great Lakes food web, Diporeia, is severely at risk. This tiny shrimp-like critter provides food for nearly every animal in the Lakes. Their position at the bottom of the food web is what makes them so pivotal.
Dr. Rutherford says he is skeptical as to whether or not this crucial crustacean will remain a viable source of energy for the Lakes.
“Well the diporeia decline has been so dramatic in four of the five great lakes that I would be surprised if they came back.”
Rutherford and his colleagues say diporeia’s decline is likely due to a virus that was introduced into the Great Lakes by quagga mussels.
Although invasives like the quagga mussel and round goby have hurt the Great Lakes ecosystem, Rutherford says the native species are not going down without a fight.
“There is a silver lining in some of these large food web changes. They’re not all drastic. The members of the food web seem to adapt in pretty unpredictable ways. The top predators in the great lakes, many have switched to eating those round gobies. The good side of this story is that were seeing reproduction of species that haven’t been able to reproduce successfully in decades.”
If animals can adapt, so can we. Dr. Baldridge says she believes people who live in the Great Lakes region will inevitably begin to make a more positive impact on their environment.
“Well theres so much regional pride, around here, and theres so much pride in the Great Lakes. Just the more people can connect their personal actions and decisions they make, what products they support, what activities they partake in, what they allow to happen in their area. . .that all impacts the Great Lakes. So hopefully that Great Lakes pride can translate into very conscientious activities.”
In the next and final portion of our three part feature on the Great Lakes and climate change, we will turn our gaze further inland: Focusing on how things we do miles away from the shore can still impact the Lakes.
In short, climate change is having a negative effect on the ecosystem of the Great Lakes.
That was the overall theme of my conversation with Dr. Kevin Strychar of The Annis Water Resources Institute.
The Great Lakes are facing increasing water temperatures. That may sound nice to the average person, but Dr. Strychar explains it could have a devastating affect on wildlife.
“Five degrees is phenomenal. Thats a phenomenal change for an animal to adapt to. If waters continue either to stay at that temperature or rise from that temperature I think we’re going to see a collapse in the food web of the Great Lakes. If you’re used to cooler temperatures, and things are warming up around, but you can’t escape, what do you do? The only real option is extinction.”
Not only are the increasing temperatures bad for native inhabitants of the lakes, they also pave the way for new invasive species and diseases that wouldn’t survive there otherwise.
Trout populations in the Great Lakes have already felt the sting of their unwanted new neighbors, and Dr. Strychar says he doesn’t think it will stop there.
“Trout populations have declined, or are in continual decline, and thats because they need to find a new food resource. I think a lot of other species endemic to the area are going to find themselves up against the wall having a difficult time competing with invasive species, like the asian carp for example.”
Species of algae are also making their mark on the Great Lakes.
Some blanket the surface of lakes, devouring the oxygen that lies beneath, and creating what’s known as a dead zone. They’re called dead zones because there is so little oxygen left in the water that virtually nothing can survive beneath the surface.
Lake Erie recently had an outbreak of harmful algae. It ended up contaminating the drinking water of Toledo, OH and forcing countless people out of their homes to find a safe source of water.
Although our conversation largely took on a somber tone, there was a silver lining: Dr Strychar says we can fix this.
“I 150,000 percent believe we have the technology to make positive impacts on the Great Lakes. I think that there is a fear of using new and novel technologies.”
The problem researchers face, Dr. Strychar says, is finding the funding to begin the long road to restoration.
“Nobody wants to try new technology, they want to put a band-aid on it. They dont want to do anything about it until it smacks you in the face and you’re on your deathbed and say ‘oh my gosh I should have done something.’ I think its going to take the demise, or the virtual demise of the Great Lakes for that to happen. It’s a shame that’s what it will take.”
In financial terms, Dr. Strychar says it would take roughly 1 million dollars over a two year period to fund the equipment and costs associated with monitoring Lake Michigan. It’s a fee that Dr. Strychar says pales in comparison to the price Americans would pay should the lakes go belly up.
“If you have cancer and the drug is not available in Michigan, but it’s available in other states, would you not want that treatment. Would you not want to save your health. Maybe it wouldn’t work. But if the technology is available that would help you, or save you in this instance. If it’s available to help the Great Lakes or save the Great Lakes, why wouldn’t you try it.”
In the coming weeks I’ll be going more in depth on specific matters pertaining to climate change and the Great Lakes. The focus will include things like; invasive species, dead zones, and the food web of the lakes.
Communities weren’t ready for the Enbridge oil spill more than four years ago near the Kalamazoo river. Now Coast Guard officials say they are in the same boat in the event of an oil spill on the Great Lakes. Continue reading