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Published: Friday, 6/22/2007

Climate change threatens 'the mighty Gitchee Gumee'

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Across three states, owners with homes on Lake Superior are looking out their windows and seeing grass, mudflats, and sandbars. The owners of the marina at the Ojibwa Recreation Area in Baraga, Mich., were unable to install the docks this year because water levels were so low.

Frank Quinn, a hydrologist and civil engineer who has been professionally watching the Great Lakes since 1962, has never seen the mighty Gitchee Gumee down so far. The water is down 19 inches from where it was just a few years ago. Lakes Huron and Michigan are down nearly as much. But is this just part of the natural order of things, or the result of climate change?

"That's a very good question," Mr. Quinn said. Some of the dropping water levels are clearly due to a long-term drought.

But some of this is not readily explainable. What he knows is that the last time the water level in Lake Superior was down this far, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. That was in 1925.

But by the early 1960s, water levels had risen so much that homes on the shore "were in danger of falling into the lake."

Water levels may well rise again. Indeed, they are down a bit less in Lakes Huron and Michigan, and virtually unchanged in Erie and Ontario. But the world has changed, and the climate is changing.

And the pristine waters of "the mighty Gitchee Gumee" as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously called it, will never be the same. For one thing, the government decades ago lowered the water level in Lakes Michigan and Huron, into which Lake Superior flows.

Lake Superior is the largest purely freshwater lake in the world, almost as large as all of South Carolina. But its waters now are teeming with imported parasites like round gobies and zebra mussels that neither the poet nor the native Americans ever imagined.

Nor does anyone know how to get rid of them. Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, or VHS, the disease that causes fish to bleed to death internally, has not been reported in Lake Superior. Not yet, that is.

Everyone knows VHS is coming; maybe this year, maybe next. The virus, like the other parasites, is thought to have arrived in the lower lakes through the ballast water of ocean-going ships.

Meanwhile, the water is also slowly warming. The once-pristine bottom of the lake is home to an increasing amount of mankind's garbage, thanks in part to shipwrecks. The Edmund Fitzgerald is the most famous of them. Besides the ship's hull, there are all those thousands of tons of taconite pellets it was carrying.

These days, the freighters piloting through the lakes are carrying less cargo, simply because the lakes are so low. One theory about what happened to the Fitz is that it may have scraped bottom.

That's much more of a real fear now. Ships are lightening their loads dramatically; the general rule for freighters is that for every inch of depth you lose, you have to reduce your load by at least 50 tons. That means more loads and smaller profits.

Throughout the region, residents mutter about conspiracy theories. Some think Lake Superior is secretly being drained by the government, or people are secretly bottling water.

Hydrologist Quinn doesn't believe that. "There have always been conspiracy theories. Back in 1964, they thought the rising lake levels were caused by Chinese atom bomb tests."

But climate change is a reality, and though its effects may take a while to be seen, they are coming. "The (water) levels may come back for a while, but in all likelihood, this is a sneak preview of what is going to be normal in 20 or 30 years."

What does that mean for the cottage on the lake that you had planned to leave to your grandchildren?

"Well you'll have a great wide expanses of property before you get to the water," he said thoughtfully.

"You'll have a lot of mud flats."

Could mankind be in the process of permanently damaging Lake Superior? Anyone with doubts might well be advised to read Newsweek reporter Peter Annin's book The Great Lakes Water Wars.

In it, the author writes about walking on what was, half a century ago, the Aral Sea, which was destroyed by the environmental madness of the former Soviet Union:

"When you're standing on the bottom of a sea bed where there should have been water 45 feet over your head, and instead there's none as far as the eye can see, how do you describe that?"

It may not be clear at this point how much we can do to counter the effects of climate change, but it is becoming more and more clear that if we want any future at all, we better at least try.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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