Does global warming mean we're losing Lake Erie?

SANDUSKY Get ready for hot weather that will make Ohio feel like part of the Deep South.
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Get ready for hot weather that will make Ohio feel like part of the Deep South.

And get ready for a smaller -- and muddier -- Lake Erie.

The effects of global warming are on the way, climate scientists predict. It likely can't be stopped, but action can be taken to keep it from getting worse.

Don Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois, says global warming is likely to make summer temperatures in the Midwest 5-15 degrees hotter in the summer.

"Michigan becomes more like Alabama and Arkansas," Wuebbles explained.

As the Earth heats up, global warming is expected to raise ocean levels, inundating coastlines, but lower the levels of the Great Lakes.

The oceans are expected to rise because much of the water now captured in ice, such as the glaciers of Greenland, is expected to melt, releasing more water into the ocean.

The shrinking of the winter ice cover over the Great Lakes, also caused by warming temperatures, will have the opposite effect. More open water means more evaporation, removing water from the lakes, Wuebbles said.

Wuebbles said new research on the effects of global warming on Lake Erie, to be discussed in a paper being prepared for submission to the Journal of Great Lakes Research, suggests that Lake Erie's water level could fall as much as 1.2 feet by 2050.

Economic, environmental effects

That has important implications on the area's economy, because it would hurt Great Lakes shipping, Wuebbles said.

"One inch could cause a very huge impact," he said.

Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association in Cleveland, said he is not an expert on global warming, but his organization has calculated the effect of shallower water, whether it's caused by global warming, lack of dredging or another reason.

When one of the 1,000-foot vessels with U.S. flags in the Lake Carriers Association lose one inch of water, it means the ship can carry 8,000 tons less cargo, Weakley said. That's enough coal to provide three hours of electricity for Greater Detroit. That one-inch loss means the U.S.-flagged Great Lakes fleet -- 63 ships total, including the 13 1,000-footers -- would carry 400,000 fewer tons a year.

One "laker," as the freighters are called, can carry as much cargo as 2,800 trucks, Weakley's group says.

The effects aren't just economic.

As the climate changes, there will be shifts in which plants and animals find the climate comfortable. Tree species could shift from sugar maples and paper birches to trees associated more with the southern United States, such as post oaks and Southern red oaks.

Assuming climatologists are correct -- that global warming will cause lower lake levels, warmer lake temperatures and an increase in the frequency of severe storms -- the ecology of Lake Erie will be altered, said Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant and the Stone Laboratory.

"You would find people, I think still, that would argue with each one of those contentions. The vast majority of scientists agree with those three. That's about all you can say," Reutter said.

The predicted conditions will create more nutrients for the algae in the lake and more sediment, making the water muddier.

Harmful toxic algae blooms in the Western Basin of Lake Erie will likely get worse because of the warmer water and additional nutrients, and the "dead zone" in the Central Basin -- a section of the lake lacking oxygen -- likely will grow larger, Reutter said.

If the lake level falls, more dredging will be necessary, Reutter said. Many Western Basin marinas already have to do dredging, he said.

Ice fishing already is suffering because the time period for ice cover on the Great Lakes is growing shorter, Reutter said.

It's not a debate

Global warming itself is not an enemy of life on Earth. In fact, it's a necessary part of making the Earth habitable.

Radiation from the sun is trapped by the atmosphere, heating up the planet and giving it a temperate climate that can support life. It's a natural phenomenon that's gone on for eons.

The global warming discussion actually refers to global warming that's been accelerated by man.

The burning of high-carbon fossil fuels such as oil and other activities associated with the modern industrial world have added to the atmosphere's load of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that have heated up the planet's surface.

There is no debate among climate scientists about the reality of global warming, Wuebbles said.

"Too often the media wants to treat global warming as a contentious topic," he said. "There is no science debate going on in the scientific community."

Peer-reviewed scientific journals, in which scientists hash out controversies and discuss new research, show no debate. Every major scientific organization in the world has put out a statement on the importance of the issue.

"I think the public remains confused about whether this is a major issue," Wuebbles said.

What should be done?

One step advocated by scientists is to reduce the use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas and increase the use of "clean" fuels such as wind power and solar power. Some global warming foes advocate building more nuclear plants, which produce radioactive wastes but do not put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"Energy policy is climate policy," Wuebbles said. "We need to link the two."

Linda Mortsch, senior researcher for the Meteorological Service of Canada, said a balanced response to global warming is needed. That includes mitigation -- reducing carbon emissions and practicing conservation so less energy is needed -- and adaptation to deal with moderate harm and exploit the beneficial side of global warming.

Mitigation is crucial to reduce the impact of the changes, although "in the short term, the climate is going to be changing," she said.

Many rival ideas have been proposed on what should be done about global warming.

Former Vice President Al Gore proposed a massive program in July to produce all electricity through "green" sources such as wind power and solar power.

Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming," argues that global warming is a real problem but that efforts to reduce carbon dioxide will be enormously expensive and have little effect. The main effort should be to invest in research into new technologies to deal with global warming, Lomborg argues.

Comments

pntbutterandjelly

What global warming? What pollution? What depletion of natural rescources? What Lake Erie algae bloom? What drinking water contamination? (And I thought the moon moving away an inch per year was scary!)