Though the Great Lakes have been the driving force behind many environmental laws since the early 1970s, they soon may undergo a moderate shift in how they're researched and regulated for future generations.
Some scientists who attended last week's International Association of Great Lakes Research conference at the University of Toledo said they're eager to move on to a new suite of chemicals and a broader array of studies about how the lakes can affect human health, both physically and psychologically.
UT President Lloyd Jacobs believes the lakes should not be viewed in narrow terms. He opened the conference by encouraging scientists to step back and "think also about the lakes as a spiritual resource."
The reassessment comes as the United States and Canada prepare for a June 13 summit in the Niagara Falls area to mark the 100th anniversary of their 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
The two countries also are reconsidering the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement they signed in 1972 and last amended in 1987.
Both agreements have been used as frameworks for mutually protecting the lakes. But neither addresses what scientists see as the region's most critical emerging issue: climate change.
"We consider climate change to be an enormous, emerging public health problem," said Howard Frumkin, one of the conference's two keynote speakers.
Mr. Frumkin is director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Deadly heat waves, more air pollution, more infectious diseases, and more allergies are likely in the Great Lakes region as its climate warms.
Mr. Frumkin implored scientists to find more links between lake ecology and human health - and to communicate them better to the public without creating doomsday scenarios.
He likened the challenge to that of the 1950s and 1960s, when schoolchildren were taught to prepare for the possibility of an atomic bomb by curling underneath their desks. The latter, in retrospect, probably did little other than scare them, he said.
He encouraged scientists to consider psychological impacts on children when striving for balance and rational thinking in their climate-change messages.
The conference's other keynote speaker, Rita Colwell, a former director of the National Science Foundation who holds 51 honorary degrees, wondered why people haven't made connections.
Under some of the worst-case scenarios, South Florida, San Francisco Bay, and other parts of North America would be submerged by rising water as ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt.
More than 100 million people from Bangladesh could flee to Asia, Europe, and the United States, Ms. Colwell, a distinguished professor at both the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, said.
"We're going to have an enormous number of environmental refugees," she said.
In his first budget proposal to Congress, Barack Obama - America's first president from the Great Lakes region in decades - earmarked $475 million in new money for Great Lakes restoration work. That was in addition to millions of dollars in federal stimulus money for better sewage systems, which the government identified in 2005 as the Great Lakes region's No. 1 infrastructure need.
"Within the next year, we could see an influx of money for a broad array of research," said Todd Nettesheim of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago.
That includes millions for researching wind power, solar power, and other forms of alternative energy in response to climate change and growing uncertainty over oil imports.
Kristina Donnelly, a fellow for the Great Lakes Commission, which coordinates policy for the Great Lakes states, said two of the world's biggest offshore wind farms are viewed as models for the region. They are in the Horns Rev and Nysted areas of Denmark, she said.
Both were developed this decade, prompting some bird and fishery experts to question whether they've been around long enough to generate sufficient data to draw conclusions.
The lakes commission sees the central and eastern basins of Lake Erie as the ripest for offshore development, followed by some near-shore areas along Lake Michigan. Western Lake Erie will be difficult to develop, at least initially, because it is in the path of two major flyways for birds, Ms. Donnelly said.
The lakes face a combination of new and old issues, some of which - such as algae - have come on strong after years of fading from sight.
One theory is that the algae is being exacerbated by a warmer climate. It is fed by phosphorus, a common nutrient applied to farm fields and a component of human excretion and animal manure.
David Baker of Heidelberg University in Tiffin said the Maumee River's phosphorus level is at its highest in 34 years of testing.
"Really, what we're seeing is unprecedented - at least in the last 30 years and probably more - but we don't know," Douglas Kane, a Defiance College researcher, said.
Data gaps still exist in several areas, including air pollution.
Jon Dettling, a contractor for the lakes commission, said public health standards have been established by a "mishmash" of research.
"We're missing a lot of chemicals," he said. "We probably don't have an inventory for half of them."
Climate change could make it more difficult for scientists to track air pollutants because of changes in precipitation, wind, and land use, Terry Bidleman, an Environment Canada research scientist, said.
"Putting together a meaningful emissions inventory has always been difficult," he said.
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