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.