Lake Michigan is a valued cultural, economic, and environmental asset for Wisconsin. It is a rich resource for outdoor tourism offering lake recreation along its shoreline, while providing water for millions of people, houses ports that serve global shipping markets, and is even featured on Milwaukee’s new flag! While growing up a few blocks away from a public Lake Michigan beach, I frequented its freshwater shores often to cool off and take in its beauty. However, the lake and natural ecosystems in Wisconsin are changing as a result of global climate change.
As greenhouse gas emissions cause global temperatures to rise, our beloved lake is subject to warmer air and higher precipitation. Algal blooms are unhealthy for fish and degrade water quality, but they will become a more prevalent phenomenon as the lake warms. The EPA stated in a 2016 report that an increase in dense precipitation events caused by global warming will increase flooding, resulting in higher levels of sewage overflow into Lake Michigan. Agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry in Wisconsin that will face decreasing yields as a result of more severe droughts and floods. In response, farmers may choose to apply more fertilizer to their fields which could result in runoff that further pollutes the lake.
Trade vital to Wisconsin’s economy will be limited by the lake’s changing water levels. Major trading routes utilize Lake Michigan as part of the St. Lawrence Seaway shipping system, which supports “30,000 jobs and $3 billion of business every year” according to Wisconsin Educational Communications Board (WECB) and University of Wisconsin Extension. WECB also reports that the net impact of climate change will be a decrease in water levels “by approximately 1 to 2 feet over the next century.” As the amount of summer precipitation begins to decline and evaporation occurs at a faster rate (despite an increase in heavy storm events) vessels carrying shipments will have to lighten their loads in order to travel through a more shallow lake. This will limit the lake’s capacity to be utilized in the Saint Lawrence Seaway shipping system resulting in financial losses. Although climate models suggest that there will be longer shipping seasons due to later forming and faster melting ice, this will be counterbalanced by lower lake levels. Ultimately, Lake Michigan shipping industry will face changes and must adapt to in order to continue thriving.
So what can I do to mitigate adverse climate change impacts? Obviously, I can try to decrease my own carbon footprint by using cars less often, eating fewer animal products which produce high carbon outputs, utilizing renewable energy when available, unpluging electronics, and using reusable containers and objects. Furthermore, I can encourage those around me to do the same! I can also fight for the protection of the lake by urging state and federal governments to implement the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy (GLRCS). This comprehensive plan aims for legislation that protects the lake from pollutants by repairing aging sewage treatment systems, preserves and restores wetlands, reduces runoff from farm fields by promoting agricultural practices that reduce soil erosion, and installs buffer strips to protect shorelines by filtering contamination. One can advocate for these laws by writing letters, signing petitions, attending community board meetings, and contacting elected officials.
As shipment managers and officials prepare for climate change impacts, beach goers like me must also be willing to participate in building the lake’s resilience. If people love the lake for all the cultural, economic, and environmental benefits that it provides, we will take part in mitigating climate change and protecting the lake from adverse climate change impacts.