Lower lake levels could hurt region, industry

2012-10-14T00:00:00Z Lower lake levels could hurt region, industryAnthony Raap Medill News Service nwitimes.com
October 14, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Climate change is expected to drop water levels in the Great Lakes, affecting industry and the region.

Levels could drop anywhere from a few inches to several feet as water evaporates in the drought conditions, experts said Wednesday.

Extreme weather will become more commonplace. Heat waves will be more severe. Drought will be more frequent, said Don Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois.

Those are local impacts of climate change that are already occurring, Wuebbles said,

Even the 46 percent increase in extreme rainfall in the last 50 years won't overcome diminishing Great Lakes levels, said Wuebbles, who is co-authoring the long-awaited 2013 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In short, the climate is changing, and the only logical explanation for this change is human activity, said Wuebbles, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the IPCC and Al Gore for their work on climate change.

"We're going to have to learn to adapt to climate change," Wuebbles said during the panel discussion "Great Lakes Water Scarcity and Regional Economic Development" at Northwestern University's Chicago campus.

Panelists agreed that the Great Lakes region would be hard hit if more isn't done about climate change. This year, the region and most of the country has experienced record heat, which has led to evaporation.

In Chicago, millions of people rely on Lake Michigan water. And suburbs strapped with declining well water supplies may be hard-pressed to link to declining lake supplies. Panelists emphasized that the effects of climate change stretch well beyond the Midwest. The Great Lakes hold roughly 20 percent of the world's freshwater supply.

Cameron Davis, senior adviser to the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said lower water levels already are affecting fishing, shipping and tourism.

When industry is impacted, it hurts the entire region. Davis said the Great Lakes support 1.5 million jobs and account for $62 billion in wages.

"To this region, water is everything," he said. "Water is our life."

When any of these lakes see a drop in water level, the ramifications are felt across the globe, said David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

Even though climate change is a global problem, Ullrich said it should be dealt with at the municipal level. Cities need to develop ways to reduce water consumption and do a better job of protecting their water resources and coastal areas.

Regional governments have hammered out a number of compacts and agreements related to climate change, but the process has been hindered by a lack of specific goals, targets and timelines, Ullrich said.

Wuebbles said the potential impacts of climate change are so great the problem has to be taken seriously. The cost of doing something about climate change is small, he said, compared to the potential risks.

"It's how much humanity decides we're going to go," Wuebbles said.

Wednesday's panel discussion was sponsored by the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, the Midwest Energy and Sustainability Leadership Alliance, Argonne National Laboratory and the Shedd Aquarium.

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