The Climate Corner

The brutal winter of 2013-14 is over and water levels are up in the Great Lakes. Is everything returning to normal?

We’d prefer to be able to say yes, but we know we are in the midst of significant change. Despite weather variability, the debate among climate scientists is about the magnitude and impact of climate change, not whether it’s happening.

Many of us believed that the deep waters of the Great Lakes would buffer us from the impacts of climate change. Stories of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, intense hurricanes, and endangered polar bears were about other places. The evidence of the last 20 years is clear: the buffer is not working.

Average temperatures in the upper Midwest are increasing rapidly, especially at night, and as a result the lakes and their ecosystems are changing.

At the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and in neighboring Lake Superior communities, climate change is one of the most important issues we face. Fishermen, sailors, the shipping industry, and many others, can describe the changes they are seeing, and their worries about the future. They may not call it climate change, but they will tell you that our lake is changing. The conversation is shifting away from denial to the ecological and economic impacts of the changes that are happening and our need to adapt.

For the Apostle Islands, like everywhere else, understanding how these changes will ripple through our ecosystem and affect our neighboring economy is hugely important.

Despite the cold winter of 2013-14, we are seeing warmer summers and less-cold winters with increasing frequency. Most of the world experienced above average temperatures this winter. We were the anomaly. In the future, more winter precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow. Most years, we will see later freeze-ups and earlier ice breakups and snow melts, as has been the case for quite a while. There’s clear evidence of a greater frequency of irregular, high intensity storm events.

Less ice and increasing evaporation means lower average lake levels are very likely. Important ephemeral wetlands will dry up. Warmer water extending lower in the water column most summers is already affecting lake turnover and nutrient cycling, and causing deeper and longer thermal stratification of the lake.

The result is shrinkage and loss of terrestrial and aquatic habitats for species at the edge of their ranges, including almost all of the unique species on Great Lakes islands as well as wild rice, so culturally important to local tribes. Habitat is shifting to deeper water even for common species, such as lake trout and whitefish. We’re also seeing increases in both aquatic and terrestrial invasive species and diseases. Algae and turbidity are increasing. We saw the first-ever toxic blue-green algae bloom on Lake Superior in 2012, a distinction our park could have lived without.

Lower water levels create expensive infrastructure problems: fixed docks are too high and in some places, water may be too shallow to allow access to docks. Navigation hazards are exposed. While these are inconveniences for recreationists, they create safety issues and have tremendous economic implications for a coastal economy that relies on tourism and shipping.

Our park strives to be on the leading edge of climate change education and sustainable practices, and we are adapting our infrastructure to climate change where we can. We are modifying dock designs to be more resilient to both lower and higher lake levels. We’ve lowered dock surfaces and will be lengthening boat ramps. We’re working with local governments, land trusts and tourism organizations across the region to educate visitors on what is happening to the lake and the lake experience. We are also communicating why and what we are doing to adapt to climate change and protect the lake and its ecosystem that we all care about so much.

I sometimes say that national parks are “in the perpetuity business.” We’re here for the long haul. The National Park Service mission, established by Congress in 1916, is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

People live near and visit the Apostle Islands area because they feel a deep connection to the beauty and grandeur of Lake Superior. By acknowledging the lake’s vulnerability to climate-induced changes, and sharing stories of what we are doing to adapt, we are learning that the tourism economy is resilient. People want to be part of a community that cares deeply about its environment, and they embrace the cause of protecting what makes it special. I am sure the same is true for those who live along Lake Michigan and treasure Door County.

Bob Krumenaker is the superintendent of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, on Lake Superior, the only US national park fully within the state of Wisconsin. Bob has been intensively involved with climate change and sustainability at multiple levels, serving as a charter member of the National Park Service’s national Climate Change Steering Committee, on the advisory committee of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), and on several committees of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters related to climate change and water resources in the state. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was designated as the nation’s most sustainable national park by National Geographic Traveler in 2005, and became the Midwest Region’s first “climate friendly park” in 2007. In recognition of his climate change leadership activities, Bob received the NPS regional Superintendent of the Year award in 2008 and a Lake Superior Binational Forum Environmental Stewardship award in 2011. Krumenaker served as the lead author on the NPS Midwest Region Climate Change Response and Green Parks Strategy, which was adopted in 2012.