Full Circle Superior Part IV: Changing Superior, Changing Industry

Blog originally posted on the GLOBE Scientists' Blog:

This week we pick back up on our Full Circle Superior Series.  In 2010 Mike Link and Kate Crowley chose to walk around the largest fresh water lake in the world – Lake Superior which has shoreline in both Canada and the United States. This 1555 mile/145 day walk was the first ever by a couple and the first to attempt to stay on the shoreline. Because Mike and Kate are educators in their sixties they wanted to deliver important information about the lake to inspire others to care for it. As a researcher and college professor Mike wanted the adventure to have information for his courses and for research institutions around the lake.  This is Part VI in the Full Circle Superior series.  For more information, read Part I, Part II, and Part III.

While there are many issues facing land owners along the shores of Lake Superior, there are other concerning issues, such as the wild rice and fish spawning area on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin. To Chippewa tribes around the Lake Superior basin, wild rice (manoomin) is “the food that grows on water.” It fulfilled a prophecy in the story of the Chippewa tribe’s migration from the east – how they would know they had found their new home. The Chippewa culture bases its history and survival on the natural harvest of fish and wild rice. In 2007, The Bad River Band, a tribe of Chippewa Indians in Northwestern Wisconsin, had to forego ricing because of the low water level. When this happens in isolated years it might allow the reseeding and expansion of rice production, but when it happens over a decade, no one can predict the outcome. 

Young wild rice shoots floating on the Kakagon Sloughs, a coastal wetland on Lake Superior, Bad River Reservation, Wisconsin
Young wild rice shoots floating on the Kakagon Sloughs,

In addition to the impact on wild rice, the natural fisheries of the lake have been impacted by many factors.  One such impact is the toxins that have entered bays with large factories that lacked the pollution prevention filtering. Many of those toxins remain in the water decades later. With water level reduced, the toxins concentrate in the water; the water warms and the fish species that might spawn are prone to failure because of both toxicity and temperature. We had expected to eat more fresh caught fish as we walked around, but the fishing, while good in some areas, has never fully recovered from the earlier combination of overfishing and the arrival of the sea lamprey. The wetlands that we need to be productive were so dry that we walked through many of them without getting our feet wet. This means the food sources for the fish, the habitat for birds, turtles, and other wetland species have had a prolonged period of limited production. We know wetlands are natural filters, but they cannot filter the water if the water does not reach the plants.

Another well documented impact of lower lake levels is  the impairment of shipping..  It speaks to the fact that the issue of low water and the changes in our climate are more than isolated affects, more than the concern a few individuals. Sea Grant, a NOAA administered network of 32 university-based programs that work with coastal communities, discussed this in their 2007 newsletter.

“From an economic standpoint, cargo ships have had to lighten their loads and sometimes vessels have been excluded from harbors. Additionally, power plants at the Soo Locks are running at a diminished capacity.  In August 2012 a 1027 foot freighter went aground within the St Mary River Channel that connects Lake Huron to Lake Superior with the final lift coming at the locks.  The boat not only suffered damage to its hull, it also caused numerous large vessels to anchor in Whitefish Bay and wait for the locks and river to clear for their downbound journey.
For the shipping industry, a one-inch (2.5 cm) water level drop can mean over 250 tons of coal will be left on the dock when a thousand-footer weighs anchor. A two-foot drop means that upwards of 6,000 tons, approximately ten percent of a thousand-footer's capacity will be left behind. And it's not like companies can just send more ships to pick up the slack.”

In these areas of concern we were not able to do original research.  Instead, we reviewed existing research, talked to scientists, and then made our observations in light of that knowledge.  On our hike we watched people swimming in Lake Superior like they do in our smaller lakes.  The water temperature was 20° F above normal in 2012.  It is worthy to note that in July of this year, temperatures on both land and water were the highest on record.

Walking along the coast of Lake Superior
Walking along the coast of Lake Superior

Through our trip, our concerns became for the indigenous people of the lake, the resident lake owners and recreationists, the fish, the quality of the water, the economy, and the natural landscape. The continued argument over global climate change  should focus instead on observing what changes are going on and take necessary action. We need to prevent damage to our fresh water and our air. We need to think about the future and not debate whether humans can create a change in the climate – of course we can, just like we can create Chernobyls, BP oil spills, Hungarian toxic sludge flows, and Bhopal plant explosions!

In August of 2012, scientists published a report that worried about the change in the lake effect on communities because it no longer had a cooling effect in 2012.  If the warming continues the lifestyle and the cooling bills along the lake will change dramatically. To put it as plainly as we can: We have seen too many things done to our planet during our lifetime and we think that putting the planet first is a good idea and starting with Lake Superior is a wonderful way to begin the process.

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