El Niño is here. What will it mean for Great Lakes ice cover?

lake erie ice

Over the weekend, temperatures finally climbed over 40ºF in Cleveland. Given the fact that the average temperature in February was all of 14.3ºF – by far the coldest February in our history – the mid-40s felt like a heat wave.

My fiancée and I decided to venture outside and headed down to Edgewater Park on Cleveland’s West Side. Edgewater, as the name suggests, sits along Lake Erie. We wanted to take an opportunity to see the lake before the ice really began to melt. Due to the frigid winter, the Great Lakes were once again covered in a thick layer of ice this year. Though we will likely remain just shy of last year’s mark, ice cover reached a peak of 88.8% on February 28. As set to continue running at or above normal, this number should continue dropping until the lakes are ice free sometime in late Spring. It has already fallen by more than 20% in the past 10 days.

We were far from the only people with this idea. While neither of us planned to actually head out onto the ice, we eventually decided to follow the pack. Someone had even decided to set up a tent on the ice a few hundred feet off shore to serve soup and coffee to passersby. At the time, I had no idea what the actual thickness of the ice we were walking on was. I flippantly estimated that it was several feet thick – a testament to my ignorance. I have since discovered, from the map below, that we were likely standing on a sheet of ice roughly 40 centimeters thick. Fortunately, that is thick enough to support a car.

lake erie ice thickness march 9, 2015

Courtesy of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

El Niño arrives – finally

Just as the forecast was beginning to take a turn for the better last week, NOAA made headlines by announcing that El Niño had finally arrived. Forecasters had been warning about its impending onset for more than a year, so the announcement wasn’t exactly a surprise. As I stood on the ice last weekend, I couldn’t help but wondering how this phenomenon might affect ice cover next winter.

El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), during which a band of water water forms in the mid-tropic Pacific Ocean. The phenomenon is characterized by high air pressure in the western Pacific and low air pressure in the eastern reaches of the ocean. As Eric Holthaus notes at Slate,

Technically, for an official El Niño episode, NOAA requires five consecutive three-month periods of abnormal warming of the so-called Nino3.4 region of the mid-tropical Pacific, about halfway between Indonesia and Peru. It usually takes a self-reinforcing link-up between the ocean and the atmosphere to achieve this, and it finally appears the atmosphere is playing its part.

Generally speaking, El Niño brings above average temperatures to the Great Lakes region. Moreover, because the oceans have been storing vast amounts of heat over the past decade-plus, helping to limit the rate of global warming, a particularly strong El Niño could lead to a dramatic transfer of stored heat from the oceans to the surface. As a result, many observers are predicting that 2015 will be the warmest year on record.

El Niño and Great Lakes ice cover

It would be logical to assume that the onset of El Niño will limit the amount of ice that forms on the lakes. According to a 2010 NOAA study, from 1963-2008, 11 out of 16 El Niño winters saw below average ice cover. During these 16 winters, ice covered an average of 47.8% of the Great Lakes, considerably lower than the long-term annual average of 54.7%. As Raymond Assel, a scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) wrote in 1998 (emphasis from original):

On average, the average annual regional temperature is likely to be higher (approximately 1.2ºC and the annual regional maximum ice cover is likely to be less extensive (approximately 15%) during the winter following the onset year of a strong warm ENSO event.

But the connection between El Niño and ice cover is not quite so straightforward. In fact, three winters – 1970, 1977, and 1978 – saw above average ice cover, despite occurring during El Niño events. Ice cover during the latter two years exceeded 80%.

So what else is at play? Well, according to the literature, three factors must combine to produce a particularly mild winter for the Great Lakes region and, by extension, lead to extremely low ice cover like we saw in 1998, 2002, and 2012: the strength of the El Niño event and the modes of the Arctic and Pacific Decadal Oscillations. Let’s take a look at three these indicators to get a sense of what might be in store.

El Niño strength

Multiple studies have found that the relationship between these two factor is highly nonlinear. As this chart from Bai et al. (2010) shows, the scatter plot for ice cover and El Niño strength follows a parabolic curve. Accordingly, El Niño does tend to limit ice formation, but its effect is only significant during strong events.

Relationship between El Niño strength and Great Lakes ice cover (from Bai et al. 2010).

Relationship between El Niño strength and Great Lakes ice cover (from Bai et al. 2010).

But the current signs do not point to a strong event. As Brad Plumer explained for Vox,

Back in the spring of 2014, it really did look like a strong El Niño would emerge later in the year…

But then… things got messy. Atmospheric conditions over the Pacific Ocean didn’t shift as expected. Specifically, scientists weren’t seeing the change in atmospheric pressure over both the eastern and western Pacific that you’d expect during an El Niño.

As a result, NOAA appears to be tempering expectations about the strength and duration of this event. It is likely to be relatively weak and last through the summer, potentially limiting its impacts on the Great Lakes.

Arctic Oscillation

The Arctic Oscillation (AO) is among the most important factors that determines the severity of winter in the Great Lakes. The AO is “a climate pattern characterized by winds circulating counterclockwise around the Arctic at around 55°N latitude.” During its positive phase, strong winds around the North Pole effectively lock Arctic air in the polar region, helping to moderate winters. But in its negative phases, these westerly winds weaken, allowing Arctic air to travel further South; this is the phenomenon that caused the polar vortexes we have seen in the past two winters.

Accordingly, during the positive phase of the AO, less ice cover forms on the Great Lakes. From 1963-2008, positive AO winters have been 0.9-1.8ºC warmer than normal and seen a mean ice cover of 49.2%. The combination of an El Niño and a positive AO produced the five lowest ice cover totals during this period.

So where does the AO stand? Currently, it is in a positive phase. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine whether this phase will persist, as the AO can fluctuate widely. But if this oscillation does remain in a positive phase next winter, it would amplify the effect of the weak El Niño.

Pacific Decadal Oscillation

Winter weather is also influenced by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), “a long-lived El Niño-like pattern of Pacific climate variability” that helps determine sea surface temperatures in the North Pacific. Rodionov and Assel (2003) concluded that the PDO helps to modulate the impact of ENSO on the Great Lakes. Warm phases of the PDO tend to amplify the impact of El Niño and reduce ice cover.

Last year, the PDO emerged from its prolonged weak phase to reach record high levels. If it continues to remain strong, it will likely lead to warmer temperatures not just next winter, but potentially for the next 5-10 years. This would seem to suggest that the PDO will enhance the impact of the El Niño event next winter.

Conclusion

Overall, the picture is still a bit murky. It does not appear that the El Niño will be strong enough to produce the type of least ice cover event that we saw in 2012. Yet, at the same time, the combined effects of El Niño, a positive AO (should it remain that way), and a warm PDO (if the trend continues) will likely ensure that the Great Lakes region avoids another brutal winter, like the ones we’ve seen two years running. If this is the case, lake ice cover should regress closer to the long-term mean of approximately 50%.

But if the indicators strengthen in the next several months, the winter weather could moderate even more; this would have clear impacts for lake levels, lake-effect snow, harmful algal blooms, and local temperatures during the Spring and Summer months.

If you care about water, you need to worry about energy production

lakeshore power plant
lakeshore power plant

FirstEnergy’s Lake Shore power plant, which is slated to close this fall, sits along the shore of Lake Erie on Cleveland’s east side. Thermal pollution from the plant has historically prevented the waters near the site from freezing over in winter (courtesy of WKSU.org).

This article is cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Saturday was World Water Day 2014. This year’s theme centered on the water-energy nexus, a topic which has become increasingly important in recent years.

According to the United Nations, energy production currently accounts for 15% of global water use, a number which is projected to grow to 20% within the next two decades. In the US, this number is significantly higher; the US Geological Survey estimates that electricity production alone makes up 49% of all water use.

Unfortunately, people tend too often to overlook the water-energy nexus until a catastrophic event happens. Water plays a vital role in the entire lifecycle of energy production, and it remains extremely vulnerable to the deleterious consequences that may arise from each step in the process – from extraction to refining to generation to distribution and beyond.

We know, for instance, than at least 20% of streams in West Virginia are heavily degraded due to mountaintop removal mining, an incredibly destructive form of coal extraction. In addition, we have seen several recent mishaps at other stages the process, whether it was the massive Freedom Industries chemical spill on the Elk River (refining), Saturday’s oil tanker spill outside of Houston (distribution), or the major coal ash spill on the Dan River.

Thermal pollution and water quality

But there exists another, less understood impact of energy production on freshwater resources – thermal pollution. The US gets 91% of its electricity from thermoelectric power plants; this category largely includes nuclear power plants and plants that run on fossil fuels. Thermoelectric plants generate massive amounts of heat during electricity generation process. This heat builds up within the plant and forces plant operators to draw in huge amounts of freshwater to cool the generators.

water withdrawals for power production

Daily water withdrawals for power production by state. As the map shows, water use is particularly high in the Great Lakes region (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Once-through cooling systems, which take in water once for cooling and then discharge it back into waterways, make up 31% of the US’s power plant fleet. These systems require 20,000-60,000 gallons of freshwater for cooling per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy produced. As a result, the Sierra Club estimates that power plants suck up more than 135 trillion gallons of water (PDF) each year for cooling alone.

This staggering total exacts a serious toll upon aquatic environments. Dicharged water temperatures are, on average, 8-12ºC warmer than the intake temperatures. As Madden, Lewis, and Davis noted in a 2013 study,

Aquatic organisms are highly dependent on specific thermal conditions in aquatic environments; water temperatures above or below optimal thermal regimes can cause stress or even death.

Such thermal pollution can negatively alter aquatic ecosystems in a number of ways. It can reduce the solubility of oxygen, stymie animal growth rates, change nutrient cycling processes, and increase the toxicity of chemicals like heavy metals and pesticides. Accordingly to Madden, Lewis, and Davis, increasing water temperatures by 7ºC has been shown to halve key biological processes, such as growth and reproduction. It’s no surprise, then, that power plants are responsible for the deaths of trillions of fish each year.

How water quality affects energy production

Interestingly enough, however, elevated water temperatures can also harm the efficiency of thermoelectric power plants. As water temperatures increase and stream levels drop, both the suitability and availability of cooling water decreases. During the severe heat wave that struck Western Europe in the summer of 2003, France saw its nuclear energy capacity fall by 7-15% for five consecutive weeks. This event marks a harbinger for our future in a warming world.

Climate change will reduce thermoelectric power production

According to a 2013 article in the journal Global Environmental Change (paywall), climate change will ensure that river temperatures increase significantly for a large swathe of the planet, while low river flows (lowest 10th percentile) will decrease for one-quarter of the global land surface area. Throughout much of the US, mean river temperatures are projected to increase by at least 2ºC, while high water temperatures will climb by 2.6-2.8ºC.

This spike in high water temperatures will be particularly critical for power plants, as they will occur during the period at which both water temperatures and energy demand are highest – the peak of summer. The Clean Water Act sets restrictions on the maximum temperature of water withdrawn and discharged by power plants; while the specific thresholds may vary by state, the temperature is commonly set between 27ºC and 32ºC. Research shows that more than half of all power plants with once-through cooling systems already exceed these numbers, demonstrating the vulnerability of the electricity system to global warming.

Using these numbers, van Vliet et al projected the impact that climate change will have on thermoelectric power plants (paywall) due to the combination of higher water temperatures and decreased river flows. They found that summer capacity for these plants will fall by 4.4-16% from 2031-2060. Moreover, these plants appear extremely sensitive to major reductions (greater than a 90% drop) in output as a result of global warming; the same study concludes that these events will increase nearly three-fold.

The Great Lakes region appears particularly vulnerable to falling electric output in a greenhouse world due to its heavy reliance on an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants. The National Climate Assessment notes that 95% of the Midwest’s electricity generating infrastructure (PDF) will likely see declines in output due to higher temperatures. As climate change increases stress simultaneously on aquatic ecosystems, drinking water supplies, and electricity production, potential conflicts over water uses will almost certainly increase among stakeholders.

Those of us who wish to protect our vital freshwater resources, like the Great Lakes, cannot afford to focus solely upon this sector, given its inextricable links to other areas. We need to worry as well about the stability of our climate and the makeup of our energy system. Renewable energy technologies use substantially less water than fossil fuel plants and will help shift us away from carbon-intensive energy sources. A 2012 study shows that if the US invests heavily in energy efficiency and renewable energy production, by 2050, water withdrawals and water consumption for energy production would fall by 97% and 85.2%, respectively. This shift would save 39.8 trillion gallons of water.

If we want to truly be stewards of our freshwater resources, we need to act as stewards for our climate.

How global warming will cause more lake-effect snow

lake erie ice
lake erie ice

Ice engulfs most of the surface of Lake Erie on January 10, following the severe polar vortex event a few days prior (courtesy of Discover Magazine).

Today may be the first day of spring, but winter’s icy grip continues to linger for most of us in the Midwest. But as we move – we hope – into warmer weather, NOAA has provided an overview of the winter from which we have emerged. It released its latest monthly state of the climate data last week, which also included the data for this year’s meteorological winter (December-January).

Unsurprisingly, the report reveals that this winter was cold, but far from historically so. It was just the 34th coldest on record, and no state recorded its coldest winter ever. In contrast, California had its warmest winter ever, and Arizona had its fourth warmest. As the AP’s Seth Borenstein put it, this winter demonstrated a “bi-polar winter vortex.”

One climatological variable that did reach near-record levels was the extent of lake ice on the Great Lakes. Due to the spate of below-freezing temperatures in the Great Lakes region, ice cover reached a maximum of 91% this winter, far higher than the long-term average of 51.4%. Lake Erie, which typically has the highest level of ice cover of the five lakes, jumped from just 5% ice cover on New Year’s day to more than 80% ten days later as a result of the polar vortex on January 6-7.

One year does not make a trend, though. According to the National Climate Assessment (PDF), surface water temperatures have increased dramatically in the Great lakes since the mid-20th century. From 1973-2010, annual Great Lakes ice cover fell by 71%, a startling downward trend despite the noisy year-to-year variation. Additionally, the IPCC has noted the duration of lake ice throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere has decreased by approximately two weeks since the middle of the 20th century.

great lakes ice cover trend

The average percentage of the Great Lakes covered with ice decreased dramatically from 1973-2010 (courtesy of the National Climate Assessment).

Cleveland’s winter was largely in line with the overall regional trend. January-February temperatures were 7.1ºF below the historical average, making it the sixth coldest such span in the past 75 years. Cleveland also recorded 65″ of snow this winter, 36% higher than average. That number would likely have been higher, however, had the brutal temperatures not iced over the lakes, effectively shutting down the lake-effect snow conveyor belt.

That got me thinking – as global warming continues to warm the lakes, could the Great lakes region actually see more lake-effect snow?

Lake-effect snow

As Kunkel et al note (paywall), the presence of the Great Lakes provides the necessary heat and moisture to generate precipitation where none would otherwise exist. Lake-effect snow constitutes a major part of winter in the Great Lakes region, where it can account for up to 50% of winter precipitation (PDF).

Because lake-effect occurs (paywall), as a result of “the destabilization of relatively cold, dry air mass by heat and moisture heat fluxes from a comparatively warm lake surfaces,” ice cover can significantly influence the amount of lake-effect snow that falls in a typical winter. The existence of open water in the winter allows the development of a “significant surface-atmosphere temperature gradient,” which facilitates the development of lake-effect events. Accordingly, because we know that global warming has and will continue to reduce lake ice extent, it should also generate more lake-effect snow in the Great Lakes region.

The evidence

So what does the evidence say? Do we have research to backup this seemingly counterintuitive outcome? In a word, yes.

In a 2003 study, Burnett et al examined long-term changes in lake-effect snowfall (paywall) and compared them with October-April snowfall totals and air temperatures from 1931-2001. According to the authors, lake-effect snowfall totals increased significantly at 11 of 15 sites studied. Their research also demonstrated that lake surface temperatures increased significantly at the majority of sites examined. Consequently, they concluded that

[I]ncreased lake-effect snowfall is the result of changes in Great lakes whole-lake thermal characteristics that involve warmer lake surface waters and a decrease in lake ice cover.

While the Burnett et al piece is now more than a decade old, several additional studies have largely supported its findings. Vavrus, Notaro, and Zarrin examined how ice cover affected a subset of 10 heavy lake-effect snow (HLES) events in order to quantify the impact of the ice. They found that “the suppression of open water [i.e. expansion of ice cover] on the individual lakes causes over an 80% decline in downstream” HLES. Ice cover on Lake Erie lowered snowfall by 73%, while Lake Michigan saw a reduction of nearly 100%.

The authors note that ice cover reduces heat fluxes over the lakes, lowers atmospheric moisture, stymies cloud formation, and depresses near-surface air temperatures. All of these changes can suppress lake-effect. For all five lakes, complete ice cover reduces downstream snowfall by 85%. As a result,

The results of the current study suggest that this change toward more open water should favor significantly greater lake-effect snowfall.

Wright, Posselt, and Steiner conducted a similar study, examining the relative amount and distribution of snowfall under four different models: a control (observed lake ice in mid-January 2009), complete ice cover, no ice cover, and warmer lake surface temperatures. The authors also show that moving from complete ice cover to no ice cover dramatically increases lake-effect totals. The total area seeing small (≤2mm) and large (≥10mm) lake-effect events increase by 28% and 93%, respectively. In contrast, while elevated lake surface temperatures do not increase the area affected by lake-effect, they do tend to increase the amount of heavy snowfall; areas that already experienced HLES saw 63% more snowfall.

It remains important to note that, while higher lake surface temperatures and reduced ice cover should lead to more lake-effect snow during the coming decades, a decrease in the number of cold-air outbreaks could work to counter this effect. But if lake-effect increases, as the preponderance of evidence suggests it will, it could carry major additional economic costs for Great Lakes states. According to a study of 16 states and two Canadian provinces from IHS Global Insight, snowstorms can costs states $66-700 million in direct and indirect losses per day if they render roads impassable. Great Lakes states had among the most significant losses, with Ohio forfeiting $300 million per day and New York leading the pack at $700 million.

Additional major lake-effect events will only serve to drive up this price tag even more, further constraining limited state and municipal budgets well into the future.

Climate hawks should focus more on the persuadable, less on the trolls

tea party global warming sign
tea party global warming sign

One of the more brilliant signs I saw at the fall 2010 Tea Party Rally at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds.

For years, climate hawks have devoted considerable time and energy to refuting arguments proffered by those who deny the basic tenets of climate change. This focus on countering climate deniers is evinced by the prevalence of handy lists of counter-arguments, including those from Skeptical Science, Grist, and Scientific American.

But, as I emphasized in a recent post, outright denial of the science is no longer the most potent weapon that “skeptics” have at their disposal. Instead, many of these actors have turned to denier 2.0 arguments, which frequently center on what Young and Coutinho term (paywall) the “acceptance-rejection approach.” This rhetorical acceptance that climate change is occurring opens up new pathways to forestall action on the issue by lulling the average observer into a false sense of security.

And, according to a recent article in the journal Global Environmental Change, this form of climate “skepticism” is exactly where we should be focusing our energies.

In the article, Drs. Stuart Capstick and Nick Pidgeon from the University of Cardiff develop a new taxonomy of climate change skepticism (or, as they British-ly spell it, “scepticism”). Using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods, the researchers define two basic types of climate skepticism – epistemic and response skepticism.

Epistemic skeptics turn their attention to the physical and scientific aspects of climate change. They challenge the fundamental nature of climate science, question whether whether it is man-made, and/or emphasize scientific uncertainty to cast doubt upon the topic. Epistemic skeptics seek to “construct climate change as an objectively uncertain phenomenon.”

Response skeptics, in contrast, don’t explicitly reject the science of anthropogenic climate change; in fact, many of them accept it. Despite this acceptance, however, response skeptics:

employ this type of skepticism to justify or explain lack of personal action on climate change, or as a way of distancing themselves from the need or requirement to do so.

Theses skeptics routinely question the effectiveness of potential responses to climate change, doubt that politicians can work together to address the issue, believe that the media exaggerates the risk, and are prone to fatalistic worldviews. Response skeptics are fare more likely to demonstrate a lack of concern over climate change as an issue than epistemic skeptics, perhaps due to the fact that many from the latter group may define themselves in opposition to climate “alarmists” and scientists engaged in the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” as Senator Inhofe has claimed.

As the research from Young and Coutinho demonstrated, smart climate deniers have begun to play more to such response skeptics by utilizing the acceptance-rejection approach. Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon argue that climate hawks should focus more directly on this audience as well. As they note:

whilst there are clear arguments that can be made concerning the level of scientific consensus and degree of confidence in an anthropogenic component to climate change, doubts concerning personal and societal responses to climate change are in essence more disputable.

Though it has become increasingly difficult to sway epistemic skeptics (who fall into either the “Doubtful” or “Dismissive” categories in the Yale “Six Americas” construction), response skeptics (the “Concerned,” “Cautious,” and “Disengaged”) are still persuadable. Moreover, these three groups accounted for 55% of Americans as of November 2013, far more than the 27% who identify as “Doubtful” or “Dismissive.”

six americas november 2013

Global Warming’s Six Americas breakdown, as of November 2013.

Most response skeptics view climate change as an issue that will largely affect people who are distant in both space and time. They fail to see it as an immediate, concrete issue that will affect them or the people they know and love. Accordingly, emphasizing the dire impacts that climate change is likely to have or is currently having in Bangladesh, the Philippines, or small Pacific island states will not only fail to motivate them to act, it may actually make them feel less engaged and more hopeless (PDF) about the issue, leading to greater inaction and division.

Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon discuss the need to focus on ways to localize climate change, as previous research has emphasized. As Lorenzoni et al noted (PDF) in a 2010 study,

Local environmental issues are not only more visible to the individual, but present more opportunities for effective individual action than climate change.

Rather than devoting so much of our time, resources, and energy to convincing people about whether Antarctic sea ice is waxing or waning, climate hawks should look to connect the issue to local environmental concerns. And one of the most effective ways of achieving this goal is to frame climate as a public health issue. According to research published in 2012, framing climate change as a human health issue “was the most likely [way] to generate feelings of hope.”

Making the link between health and local environmental challenges in a greenhouse world may represent the single most effective strategy for getting people from response skeptic to climate hawk. I have tried to do this by focusing on heat-related mortality in Cleveland, Great Lakes levels, and issues of microplastic pollution and algal blooms in Lake Erie. Fortunately, there now exist a number of excellent tools that allow people to bring climate models down to the local level, from these new interactive Google Maps from Berkeley Earth to “Your Warming World” from New Scientist.

Hearing and reading nonsensical rants from climate deniers gets my blood boiling just as much as any other climate hawk. But, given the amount of research available on this issue, perhaps we should all try to take a step back, realize the deniers are trolling us, and focus on more constructive efforts instead.

The restoration of wetlands is a major victory for the Great Lakes

9 mile wetland restored
9 mile wetland restored

Restoration of the Nine Mile Wetland in the Euclid Creek watershed (Source: Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District)

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Given the spate of bad news for the Great Lakes recently – from declining lake levels to toxic algal blooms to microplastic pollution to the threat of an Asian carp invasion – it may be hard for people to find any good news on the health of these vital bodies of water.

Fear not. The US Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a census of the nation’s wetlands every five years, and the latest report includes great news for the Great Lakes region – total wetland extent in the region expanded by 13,600 acres. As Sarah Goodyear wrote at Next City:

[S]ome 13,610 acres of coastal wetlands were added to the eight-state Great Lakes region between from 2004 and 2009. Given that the total wetlands acreage in the Great Lakes watershed is 8.5 million, that may not seem like a lot. Plus, some of that acreage comes from receding water that has exposed land. But it nevertheless represents a positive trend that stands in contrast to the rest of the country. During the study period, 360,720 acres of such wetlands disappeared across the nation at large.

History of wetlands destruction

The recent effort to conserve wetlands has reversed a centuries-long trend. When Europeans reached North America in the early 1600s, approximately 221 million acres of wetlands covered much of what would become the United States. Due to rapid clearing of these ecosystems to make room for settlements and provide timber for the expanding country, Americans cleared 118 million acres (53.4% of the total wetland area) by the early 1980s.

Unfortunately, Ohio stood at the forefront of wetland destruction. From the 1780s to the 1980s, the state lost 90% of its total wetlands, trailing only California’s 91% loss. This number includes the astonishing destruction of the Black Swamp, which once spanned much of the northwestern corner of the state. In just 25 years (approximately 1860-1885), a wetland that covered an area roughly the size of Connecticut completely disappeared.

This wave of wetland degradation and destruction has its roots in our consistent tendency to undervalue the important services wetlands provide. As The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History notes, early settlers in the Western Reserve (present day Cleveland) viewed their initial settlement along the Cuyahoga River as “a miasmic, disease-ridden swamp.” This view of wetlands was eventually codified into law; from 1849-1860, Congress passed a series of Swamp Land Acts, which gave 15 states control over all wetlands in their territories – a total of 64.9 million acres – for reclamation projects.

Benefits of wetlands conservation

As time has passed and more research has been done, however, it is increasingly clear that wetlands are among the most important ecosystems on Earth.

Wetlands provide a myriad of benefits. They serve as crucial refuges for fish species; research suggests wetlands can have fish populations that are 4-10 times more abundant [PDF] than other ecosystems. They also improve water quality. The degradation of coastal wetlands significantly compromises the quality of water in the surrounding areas, creating $16 billion in losses from pollution every year. Additionally, wetlands act as important buffers against coastal storms and floods. The conservation of the wetlands along the Charles River near Boston prevents $40 million in flood-related costs annually. Overall, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the economic value of the world’s wetlands [PDF] at $17 trillion.

Clearly, the addition of 13,600 acres of wetlands to the Great Lakes region represents a major victory, particularly in light of their continued destruction worldwide. Since the 1980s, for instance, human activities have destroyed 35% of remaining mangroves, a form of tropical coastal wetlands.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Much of the success in this are stems from the work of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a federal initiative that President Obama established in 2009. The GLRI has provided more than $1 billion to enhance the Great Lakes region over the last five years. These funds have and continue to go to protecting wetlands throughout the area, including the restoration of wetlands along the Euclid Creek.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. recognizes the important services that our wetlands provide, particularly the role they play protecting the quality and quantity of our water resources. We celebrate the expansion of coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes region in recent years and support ongoing efforts to strengthen our coastal ecosystems through programs like GLRI, and we remain committed to educating people on the vital role that wetlands play in keeping our Great Lakes great.

Africa’s Great Lakes were central to human evolution

victoria falls

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

great lakes of africa map

The Great Lakes region of Africa (courtesy of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).

If you’ve ever felt inexplicably drawn to Lake Erie or any of the other Great Lakes, you’re not alone. In fact, that attraction is hardwired into your genes.

Last month, two UK researchers published an article titled “Early Human Speciation, Brain Expansion and Dispersal Influenced by African Climate Pulses” in the online, open-source journal PLOS One. The piece explores a variety of close linkages between climatological variability and human evolution throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It focuses, in particular, on the East Africa Rift System (EARS, for short), which is home to the bodies of water that make up the Great Lakes of Africa.

Africa’s Great Lakes region is home to several of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. The lake system includes Lakes Victoria, Tanganyika, and Malawi, along with several other smaller bodies of water. These lakes are the lifeblood of the region and are home not only to the world’s largest waterfall, Victoria Falls, but also to the headwaters of the Nile River.

In the article, researchers Susanne Shultz and Mark Maslin sought to determine what factors contributed to the punctuated nature of human speciation and dispersal from East Africa. They focus, in particular, upon a particularly important period for human evolution, which occurred roughly 1.9 million years ago. This period gave rise to the Homo genus and witnessed a series of major migration events from East Africa into Eurasia.

Schultz and Maslin noticed that several of these major “pulses” in human evolution corresponded closely to the appearance and disappearance of the East African Great Lakes. As a result, their research probed this connection more deeply. Their results suggest a close relationship between the growth and decline of the EARS lakes and significant steps forward in human evolution:

Larger brained African hominins colonised Eurasia during periods when extensive lakes in the EARS push them out of Africa. Taken together, this suggests that small steps in brain expansion in Africa may have been driven by regional aridity. In contrast, the great leap forward in early Homo brain size at 1.8 Ma [million years ago] was associated with the novel ecological conditions associated with the appearance and disappearance of deep-freshwater lakes long the whole length of the EARS.

As this article suggests, Africa’s Great Lakes are more than simply natural resources that serve economic, social, political, cultural, and ecological purposes. They are, quite literally, engrained in our DNA.

victoria falls

Victoria Falls lie along the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Yet, tragically, these lakes and the people who depend upon them face a host of threats. The region has experienced extremely high rates of deforestation in recent decades due to unsustainable economic development, ongoing conflict, illicit logging, and dam construction. Annual rates of deforestation in the Congo River Basin doubled during the period from 2000-2005.

The ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has displaced millions, forcing many of them to encroach upon protected areas. In Africa’s oldest park, Virunga National Park, rates of illegal logging have reached 89 hectares (220 acres) per day (PDF). And the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia is drying up Lake Turkana, threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples.

Despite being home to 27% of the world’s freshwater, less than two-thirds of people in the Great Lakes region have access to improved water sources. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this issue even further. The IPCC projects that the total number of Africans facing water stress will climb to 75-250 million by the 2020s and 350-600 million by the 2050s.

But you don’t need to sit by and watch these Great Lakes dry up. Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ has been working to provide access to clean water for children in Uganda for the last three years. This winter, the organization will undertake three new projects to ensure that the children at St. Bonaventure Primary School and the Family Spirit AIDS orphanage can take advantage of their human right to clean water.

Just as East Africa’s Great Lakes are a part of our DNA, so too is access to clean water and sanitation an integral part of human development. We can all take small steps to ensure that we are protecting this human right for people at home and around the world

Recent court case could help address toxic algae issues in Lake Erie, around the country

dead fish algae bloom
satellite image algae lake erie

Satellite image of algal blooms on Lake Erie from October 30, 2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.:

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a decision (PDF) on Friday, September 20 that could have wide-reaching implications for waterways all across the United States. The case, which pitted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against a coalition of environmental groups, may change the way that surface runoff and nutrient pollution are regulated.

In effect, the district court ruled that EPA had acted improperly in 2011, when it refused to formally determine whether or not federal action was necessary to regulate the types of nutrient runoff and surface pollution that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the court gave EPA 180 days – until Wednesday, March 19 – to determine whether or not the federal government should intervene to address the increasing threat that the algae blooms behind such dead zones pose to the health and well-being of humans, ecosystems, and coastal economies.

While the decision did not require EPA to begin regulating the sources of algal blooms – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater – it does mandate the agency to determine whether the threat posed by these blooms necessitates action under the Clean Water Act. Accordingly, the ruling could force the agency’s hand, much like the US Supreme Court’s endangerment finding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) has led to recent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains unclear whether or not EPA will decide to intervene to control nutrient pollution discharges. As I noted earlier, the agency balked on the same issue in 2011, due perhaps to aggressive lobbying from various industry groups. However, the substantial increase in the number and scale of algal blooms throughout the US in recent years could motivate the agency to act.

At least 21 states battled blooms of the toxic, blue-green algae this summer (though this number likely understates the impact of the phenomenon). According to reports collected by Resource Media, there were at least 156 different reports of algal blooms around the country from May 5-September 15. Of these, 10 occurred in Ohio, while 5 affected the Lake Erie watershed.

dead fish algae bloom

Algae blooms create anoxic environments in bodies of water, reducing the available oxygen for other aquatic life (courtesy of Tom Archer, University of Michigan).

Lake Erie is perhaps the most significant waterway in the country facing such an ongoing, acute threat from toxic algae. It is both the shallowest and most densely populated of the Great Lakes, helping to concentrate the levels of harmful nutrients. The western edge of the Lake Erie watershed is also home to a large number of industrial-scale corn farms, which rely heavily upon phosphate fertilizers. Because Lake Erie is a phosphorus-limited environment, when the rain washes over the surface of these fields, it delivers large loads of phosphate runoff into the Lake. These phosphates overcome the naturally-occurring phosphorus deficit in the Lake and provide the fuel needed for algae growth.

Communities in the Maumee River watershed, the largest tributary in the Western portion of Lake Erie, have suffered the effects. This summer, the 2,000 residents of Carroll Township were told not to drink their tap water when dangerous levels of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by the algae, was found in municipal water supplies. The city of Toledo, which is located in the Maumee watershed, has been forced to spend an additional $1 million to battle toxins in its water supply.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ is committed to protecting and enhancing the well-being of our Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. While it is too early to tell how this court case will play out in the coming weeks and months, let alone to forecast its implications for waterways around the country, DLDT continues to encourage government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to take proactive measures to ensure the health of our most precious natural resource.

DLDT supports measures to tackle the growing algae problem, including recent steps by the Ohio EPA to actively monitor nutrient pollution levels and work with farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. The organization also continues to work to address the myriad challenges facing Lake Erie, including minimizing both plastic and nutrient pollution through its beach cleanups.

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, Part 2.5: Great Lakes ecosystem also vulnerable to climate change

map of climate vulnerability

I know I said my next post would be on what Cleveland can do/is doing to address its vulnerability to heat-related mortality related to climate change. But it’s my website, and I lied. I’ll get on that post as soon as I’m able.

But in the meantime, I came across this piece from Science Daily today on a new global study of vulnerability to climate change. The authors of the article in Nature Climate Change (paywalled) works to build upon weaknesses they have identified in previous analyses of vulnerability by incorporating the extent to which a changing climate will affect both the adaptive capacity of an ecosystem (which they measure as how intact its natural vegetation is currently) and how exposed it is to such changes (as measured by the projected stability of the region’s climate going forward).

Climatic instability will be significant for locations at higher latitudes, as warming tends to be far more drastic near the North Pole, as the map below illustrates. Accordingly, while the Great Lakes region may not be Siberia, it will likely experience a temperature increase higher than the global average.

map of temperature anomalies from NASA

This map shows global temperature anomalies (averaged from 2008-2012) compared to the 20th century average. As you can see, temperature increases have been particularly extreme in the Arctic (courtesy of NASA).

Moreover, as I discussed in my last post, the built environment within Greater Cleveland (and the Rust Belt, at large) amplifies the vulnerability of our ecosystems to climate change. While Cleveland is emblematic of the sprawl-based development that has cemented up millions of acres of natural vegetation, it is far from the only city to pursue this model. Kansas City, for instance, has 54% more freeway lane miles per capita than Cleveland.

Accounting for these two key variables, the authors produce a global map of vulnerability to climate change. Interestingly, their results contrast significantly from most previous studies.

For example, when climate stability (as a measure of exposure) is combined with vegetation intactness (as a measure of adaptive capacity), ecoregions located in southwest, southeast and central Europe, India, China and Mongolia, southeast Asia, central North America, eastern Australia and eastern South America were found to be relatively climatically unstable and degraded. This contrasts sharply with other global assessments (based only on exposure to climate change) that show that central Africa, northern South America and northern Australia are most vulnerable to climate change.

As the map below shows, the Great Lakes region falls within the region the authors identify as “central North America.” Accordingly, while climate change may not substantially hammer people living in Greater Cleveland, that’s more than I can say for our non-human neighbors. This study is just another thing to keep in mind as we plan for how to make the region more resilient to the changes we know are coming.

map of climate vulnerability

The map displays the relationship between climatic stability and ecosystem intact-ness. Those regions in pale green have low levels of both variables, indicating high levels of vulnerability to climate change. As the map illustrates, the Great Lakes ecosystem falls within such a zone (courtesy of Nature Climate Change).

On the shores of Lake Erie, where the children are above average & the sand is made of plastic

Over the weekend, I participated in a beach cleanup along Lake Erie at Perkins Beach in Edgewater State Park. The event was organized by Drink Local. Drink Tap., a local non-profit organization focusing on water issues in Northeast Ohio and globally.

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Unsurprisingly – particularly given that the event took place just two days after the 4th of July – the beach was strewn with a variety of litter and debris. I lost count on the number of cigarette butts and cigar tips that I picked up after I reached triple digits. Overall, the organizers reported that the other volunteers and I cleaned up 357.9 pounds of trash and 134.9 pounds of recyclable materials. Unfortunately, this effort did not even begin to make a dent in the problem; by the end, it had begun to feel like a Sisyphean task.

But while most of the other volunteers focused on the large and unusual items we found – including two discarded tires – I was particularly discouraged by the prevalence of small pieces of plastic and styrofoam. These tiny particles of plastic pollution, known as microplastic, are the real threat to the health of Lake Erie’s ecosystem.

Last fall, the 5 Gyres Institute and the State University of New York released a study on the problem of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. The research provided the first comprehensive plastic pollution survey of the lakes, and it represents an important baseline against which we can measure progress or, God forbid, further regression.

According to the survey, the researchers primarily found high concentrations of this microplastic, which is a piece of plastic debris less than 5 millimeters in diameter. According to the researchers,

One sample drawn near the border of Lake Erie’s central and eastern basins yielded 600,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer — twice the number found in the most contaminated oceanic sample on record, Mason said.

A second sample in Lake Erie yielded 450,000 plastic pieces, while the average sample across the three lakes studied yielded about 8,000 plastic pieces.

Microplastic litter comes from a variety of sources, including the breaking down of larger pieces of plastic by the elements; this was the primary source of the plastic and styrofoam pieces that I found littering Perkins Beach. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say that, in some areas, these pieces of plastic had become almost as numerous as the grains of sand. They are clearly an integral part of the beach at this point.

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

However, another key source of microplastic are conventional cosmetics and personal cleaning supplies, many of which contain small, abrasive plastic pellets. These pellets serve as exfoliates, and they have become increasingly popular in recent years. Because these plastic pieces are frequently used in the presence of water, i.e. in the shower, they readily enter our watercourses and end up in the lake.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Because it is so small and can be easily ingested by aquatic life and waterfowl, microplastic poses a major threat to the health of aquatic ecosystems like Lake Erie. It can leach chemicals into the bodies of these aquatic organisms and clearly bioaccumulates overtime. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that, if and when people consume animals that have ingested microplastic, the chemicals contained in the particles can leach into our systems as well (Thank God I’m a vegetarian…).

It’s important to note that, because the plastic pollution in Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes is far smaller than that in ocean garbage patches, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and is therefore nowhere no as big of an issue by volume. Yet, the concentration of this plastic debris is, in many instances, far greater than the average concentration of plastic in ocean gyres.

Microplastic pollution is yet another major environmental challenge we have created that threatens the health of Northeast Ohio’s most important natural resource. All in the name of vanity. As Solomon said in the Book of Ecclesiastes,

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Surely the Earth will abide and last far longer than humanity. But we are consciously and unconsciously altering it in countless ways, mostly for the worse.

Dropping cause it’s hot: On climate change & Great Lakes levels

Falling Great Lakes levels have garnered a considerable amount of media coverage in the past few days. First, the New York Times featured a full-length piece on the issue on Monday, and The Plain Dealer followed up yesterday with a piece focused primarily on Lake Erie.

As the Times piece notes, the average monthly mean for the five lakes during this past winter reached its lowest level since officials began taking measurements in 1918. For Lake Erie, 2012 was the first year on record that water levels fell during every month.  According to the 2009 National Climate Assessment, the maximum ice coverage in the Great Lakes decreased by roughly 30% from 1973-2008. The prolonged winter and extremely wet spring this year is beginning to counter the effects of last year’s record drought, but these changes are clearly part of a long-term trend, which one season or  one year worth of precipitation cannot change.

Current lake levels, compared to long-term averages, for (left to right) Lakes Michigan & Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior (courtesy of NOAA GLERL).

Current lake levels, compared to long-term averages, for (left to right) Lakes Michigan & Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior (courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

Both pieces noted the causes and likely effects of these changes for the Great Lakes region. By and large, however, they focused on the role of dredging. From the Times piece:

A measure of the drop in water levels can also be attributed to the engineering that makes Great Lakes shipping possible. The 1962 dredging of the St. Clair River may have lowered the water in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan by five inches, said John Nevin…Other dredging projects may have emptied 16 inches in all from the lakes, Mr. Nevin said.

In the comments section on his piece, Robert Smith, the PD reporter who covered the story, explicitly noted that he was focusing on dredging. Clearly dredging matters, and it will continue to into the future. It is a complicated issue, however, as it costs a considerable amount of money and is controlled by action from the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Congress, who appear to be engaged in a fight over who bears the burden for the issue.

The effects of the drop in lake levels will continue to take a significant toll on the Great Lakes. According to the US Department of Transportation (PDF), every 1″ drop in lake levels reduces the cargo capacity of a 1,000-foot bulk carrier by 270 tons. Given that the Great Lakes maritime trade industry is worth $34 billion annually, any long-term reductions in lake level will significantly hamper the regional economy.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what climate models project. While neither piece directly addressed the issue (though the Times article does mention it in passing), climate change is likely to add to any natural and direct anthropogenic impacts on lake levels. As the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted (PDF), higher air temperatures contribute to the reduction of lake levels in two main ways. First, they will continue to reduce the extent of lake ice cover during the winter months, which provides a crucial buffer against surface evaporation on the open water. Secondly, higher surface temperatures themselves lead to greater rates of surface evaporation.

Projected changes in lake levels on the Great Lakes according to the Canadian global climate model (courtesy of the Second National Climate Assessment).

Projected changes in lake levels on the Great Lakes according to the Canadian global climate model (courtesy of the Second National Climate Assessment).

According to the First National Climate Assessment, mean annual temperatures in the Midwest are expected to increase by 3-6°C (5-10°F) by the end of the century. These changes will lead to wholesale climatic shifts in the region. According to the World Bank (PDF), in a 4°C warmer world (which, as I’ve noted, is becoming increasingly likely), the coolest months in the Central US by 2070 will be significantly warmer than the warmest months today. Even as early as 2030, summers in Illinois are projected to resemble current summers in Oklahoma.

As such, the effects of rising temperatures will likely outweigh projected increases in regional precipitation, contributing to the long-term decline of lake levels. The First National Climate Assessment projected a 5-6 foot drop in lake levels for all five of the lakes, while the Second Assessment (2009) revised these down to 1-2 feet, depending on the climate model used. Regardless of the projection, these declining lake levels will significantly increase the cost of shipping (PDF) on the Great Lakes by as much as 30%.

While we should be careful to neither attribute all ecological changes to climate change nor to blame direct anthropogenic environmental changes on the effects of climate change, it’s not wise to treat them as completely distinct phenomena. Climate change is currently adjusting the baseline for all weather-related phenomena; we have already forced global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to their highest levels in human history and increased global average temperatures by roughly 0.8-1°C. Anthropogenic environmental changes and climate change will interact with one another and almost certainly create multiplicative effects over the next several decades. We need to recognize as such.