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Climate change warning signs getting stronger

Great Lakes ills reflect trend

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    A glass of algae-filled water, left, was drawn from Lake Erie in August, 2014, near the Toledo water intake crib. Water pulled from Lake Erie in July, 2016, was much clearer.

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    Water pulled from Lake Erie in July

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Climate change is becoming more pronounced across our planet, with effects in the Great Lakes region including anything from more toxic algae to faster evaporation of Great Lakes water.

Other documented Great Lakes impacts include higher shipping costs, more pollen, more Lyme disease, and changes in wintering habits of some birds that have been migrating across this part of North America for thousands of years.

Climate change has received little attention in the 2016 presidential campaigns of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, save for Mrs. Clinton’s call for lower emissions and more renewable energy jobs during her Democratic National Convention acceptance speech.

It never once was brought up during the 2012 debates between Republican Mitt Romney and his Democratic opponent, President Obama.

But the warning signs — those telltale symptoms that scientists call “indicators” — continue getting stronger, as documented in two more major reports that came out recently.

One of them, the State of the Climate in 2015 report issued by the American Meteorological Society, shows 2015 was the hottest year on record for global temperatures, surpassing the previous record set in 2014.

Led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, State of the Climate is a collaboration of 450 scientists from 62 countries.

Among its many findings: A massive algal bloom stretching hundreds of miles from central California to British Columbia last year was partly because of unusually warm Pacific Ocean water. And 2015 marked the 36th consecutive year that glaciers high up in mountains, known as alpine glaciers, retreated.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2016 is on track to raise the bar even higher, meaning a new record for average annual temperatures appears likely for three consecutive years.

NOAA records show the globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for this June marked the 14th consecutive month that a monthly record was broken, the longest such streak in 137 years of record-keeping. The global temperature for the first six months of 2016 also is the highest on record.

Climate change and invasive species contribute to algal growth. The primary source continues to be nutrients, especially farm runoff.

But scientists are seeing more evidence of climate change and invasive species exacerbating the problem; those two are believed to be part of the reason why microcystis, which has been Lake Erie’s most dominant form of algae since 1995, has been on the rise globally the last 20 years. At 3.5 billion years old, microcystis is one of Earth’s oldest-living organisms.

NOAA records show the Midwest has experienced a 51 percent increase in storms dumping three inches or more of rain within 24 hours since the 1960s. But there are anomalies. Much like 2012, when the Great Lakes region was mired in drought, 2016 also has been an exception.

The latest online records posted Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor show nearly all of the Lake Erie shoreline, from Michigan to New York, in a drought or abnormally dry this summer. Michigan’s Saginaw Bay and the rest of its lower peninsula are likewise in a drought or abnormally dry.

Scientists have said the lack of algae this summer and in 2012 underscore the relationships between heavy storms and runoff.

“While research is ongoing to fully understand contributing factors, it is believed that agricultural runoff is playing a primary role,” Stu Ludsin, an Ohio State University associate ecology professor and co-director of OSU’s Aquatic Ecology Lab, wrote on OSU’s website. “But, a changing climate also is likely promoting conditions that support both harmful algal blooms and dead zones.”

Last week, in the fourth edition of a major, ongoing study called Climate Change Indicators in the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said average annual carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in at least 800,000 years.

Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas. It stays longer in the atmosphere than other pollutants.

BY THE NUMBERS

Two more major reports came out last week that show how climate change is becoming more pronounced in the Great Lakes region and the rest of the world. Among their findings: 

■ Eight of the top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.

■ 2015 is the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous record set in 2014. 2016 is on pace to set a new record for the third consecutive year.

■ The average annual carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2015 exceeded 400 ppm for the first time in at least 800,000 years.

■ Eighty percent of U.S. weather stations have documented declines in annual snowfall since 1930.

■ The average thaw date in western Lake Superior near Bayfield, Wis., is now 24 days earlier than it was in 1905.

■ Birds are spending winters farther inland and farther north; some now go more than 200 miles north of where they wintered in the mid 1960s.

■ Lyme disease has doubled since 1991. The Great Lakes states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are having more outbreaks.

Sources: American Meteorological Society, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Eight of the top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998, according to the U.S. EPA report, which is a distillation of data generated by more than 40 other expert sources such as NOAA, NASA, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey, several leading universities, private research institutes, and groups.

While not focused on any one ecosystem, the report shows plenty of change in the Great Lakes region.

Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for U.S. EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said each new year of data shows signs of climate change becoming “stronger and more compelling.”

One chapter devoted to Great Lakes water levels and temperatures said warmer surface water temperatures “have contributed to lower water levels by increasing rates of evaporation and causing lake ice to form later than usual.”

Great Lakes water levels have fluctuated since record-keeping began in 1860.

But the levels have moved downward in recent years. Warmer temperatures have resulted in later arrival of lake ice and earlier thawing of it, and average surface water temperatures have been on the rise since 1995, the report said.

“Lower water levels can affect water supplies, the usability of infrastructure such as docks and piers, and shoreline ecosystems,” the report said. “These type of disruptions from low water levels are expected to continue as the climate changes.”

Much like the Arctic, where a loss of sea ice has complicated life in Greenland and other inhabited regions of the far north, a shorter ice season can impact the Great Lakes region. The report said the average thaw date in western Lake Superior near Bayfield, Wis., now occurs 24 days sooner than it did in 1905.

Reduced ice cover can extend the shipping season. But lower water levels force vessels to reduce the amount of cargo they haul, which drives up costs, the report said.

The average number of days that snow covers U.S. land has decreased by nearly two weeks since 1972, the biggest reduction being in spring. Nationally, there has been a gradual decline in snowfall since 1930: Eighty percent of weather stations studied across the continental United States have documented declines.

In many places, including the Great Lakes region, rain is falling during January and other months people used to expect snow. Yet there are a few exceptions, including parts of northern Ohio, western New York, northern Wisconsin, and parts of Michigan’s lower peninsula that have seen modest increases, the report said.

The Great Lakes states of Michigan, New York, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota rank among the nation’s leaders for annual precipitation increases of combined rain and snow since 1901, the report shows.

One of the more illuminating changes is with birds.

Birds “are a particularly good indicator of environmental change” because they adapt or evolve to habitat types, food sources, and temperature ranges. Cues from their environment drive certain events in their life cycles, such as migration and reproduction, the report said.

Data generated by National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts show birds have shifted away from coastlines during the winter since the 1960s. Many birds now spend their winters more than 40 miles north of where they did in 1966, presumably because of warmer winter temperatures. Of 305 species studied, 48 moved northward by more than 200 miles, according to the U.S. EPA’s analysis.

“Trends in the center of abundance moving northward can be closely related to increasing winter temperatures,” the report said.

Noted Ottawa County birder Kenn Kaufman, a member of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory who has written and illustrated some of North America’s best-known field guides, said the general trends “definitely mean something” about the way the planet is warming.

In the Great Lakes region, many tundra swans now stay through the winter, Mr. Kaufman said.

“If the climate was as harsh as it was at one time, they wouldn’t stick around,” he said.

Another example is the beautiful sandhill crane.

“That would have been unheard of in the past,” Mr. Kaufman said.

Other examples of birds spending more time up north are red-bellied woodpeckers and American tree sparrows, he said.

Former Toledo City Councilman Frank Szollosi, now a lobbyist with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office, said warmer temperatures threaten anything from walleye to human health.

The new U.S. EPA report said the incidence of Lyme disease has doubled in the United States since 1991 as warmer temperatures allow more ticks to spread the disease. While New England continues to have the heaviest infestation, the Great Lakes states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have also had large increases, the report said.

The report showed the ragweed pollen season being extended as many as 18 days in Minnesota, 21 days in North Dakota, and as many as 25 days in parts of Canada and Missouri. It did not have information on the Zika virus, and said the jury’s still out on any correlation between climate change and West Nile virus.

“Those are public health costs. Those cost money,” Mr. Szollosi said. “Those cause people to be off work. Those are not insubstantial costs.”

He said the stronger case for climate change underscores the need for the U.S. Supreme Court to sign off on landmark rules for coal-generated power plants under President Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan, and for the Kasich administration to keep its pledge to let Ohio’s two-year ban on renewable energy mandates expire.

Ohio is the only state to suspend state-approved requirements for utilities to invest more in renewable power. Although the Kasich administration has said it will not support efforts to make that freeze permanent, conservatives in the Ohio General Assembly have talked about trying to do that this fall.

“What is it costing our economy, what is it costing our society for paying for the pollution of burning carbon?” Mr. Szollosi asked. “States that choose to be laggards do so at their own peril. We’re laggards.”

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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