Primer: Climate Change in the Great Lakes

The Northeast-Midwest Institute (NEMWI) hosted a webinar on Climate Change in the Great Lakes on Friday, October 27. This webinar is part of NEMWI’s Great Lakes Primer and Orientation Program, supported by the Erb Family Foundation, which provides in-depth overviews of critical issues impacting the health of the Great Lakes. 

Don Wuebbles, from the University of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute, emphasized that climate change is having a massive impact on the Great Lakes region. “It’s not just about temperature change,” Wuebbles said. “Our severe weather is getting more intense, more heatwaves, fewer cold waves, bigger concerns about precipitation coming in larger events.” In the coming century, Wuebbles said, temperatures in the Great Lakes region will rise between 3.2 and 5.4°C, with more days above 90°F, and fewer days under 32°F. The northern latitudes of the Great Lakes region especially are projected to face the brunt of these impacts. The ranges Wuebbles gave for these changes depend on how quickly and aggressively we work to lower emissions. “What emissions we further make determines which of those scenarios we follow, and the likely impacts we’re going to see in the Great Lakes,” Wuebbles concluded.

Alicia Young, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather and Climate Portfolio Lead, spoke on NOAA’s data collection in the Great Lakes. She highlighted work that NOAA does through its Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), as well as through its partner, the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR). Young focused on another impact of climate change in the Great Lakes: ice coverage. “As we have more occurrences of warmer temperatures, we are also seeing an annual reduction of ice coverage,” Young said, referencing data collected over the past 50 years. “In some regions, those declines are on the order of 5-10 days per decade,” she stated. She also noted that annual maximum ice concentration has also decreased by 4 percent per decade for the past half-century. Both of these trends are sure to continue in the future. Looking ahead, Young shared what NOAA is doing to combat climate change in an equitable way. “A first step in that is climate literacy and climate education,” she said. “We do have outreach to tribal nations, we do have outreach across underrepresented and disadvantaged communities.”

Finally, Eric Brown, the Senior Advisor for External Relations for the Great Lakes Commission (GLC), spoke on the GLC’s response to climate change. “In a variable system like we are — we’re seeing higher highs and lower lows — our commissioners saw a need to take a regional approach on these issues,” he said. Over the past five years, GLC has increased their work on climate resilience, culminating in the adoption and implementation of the Commission’s Action Plan, which aims to help the Great Lakes region “withstand, adapt to, and recover from climate-related stressors,” with a focus on equity and inclusion. One of the focuses of the GLC’s regional approach is green infrastructure. “By utilizing natural solutions, states and communities are finding ways to reduce flooding, increase water quality, restore native habitat that supports healthy ecosystems, and increase quality of life by helping communities reconnect with nature,” Brown said.

If you missed the webinar, you can watch a recording here.