In a warming world, the Great Lakes face a dire future, and with them, the millions of people, that live near them and rely on them for their livelihoods.

Storms on the horizon

Everything including ice loss, erratic and more severe precipitation, declining water quality, and economic and infrastructure disruption are all in the cards unless climate change and other harmful human activity can be brought to heel, according to a new report released by the U.S.-based Environmental Law and Policy Center earlier this month.

The green scum shown in this image is the worst algae bloom Lake Erie has experienced in decades. Vibrant green filaments extend out from the northern shore.
Image captured by the Landsat-5 satellite. Data provided courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.

“We should not and cannot take the vast natural resources of the Great Lakes for granted. Allowing the Great Lakes to be degraded through human activities, including climate change, is not an option,” the report’s executive summary reads.


The lakes have already experienced numerous changes as average global temperatures have risen about one degree celsius over the last century — with warming accelerating over the past decades. And those problems are only expected to worsen if warming continues.

From 1901 to 2015, for example, the incidence of severe rain and snow episodes jumped 10 per cent, with more and more “unusually large” events, according to the report, and will likely be more frequent as winters and springs become wetter — meaning more flood events for rain, and more intense lake-effect snow events.

The latter are likely to be more damaging, particularly in the snowbelts of Lake Ontario and the upper western areas of New York State, “where three- and four-feet snowstorms are already routine.”

That’s due to the fact lake ice has generally been in decline over the last few decades — as much as 75 per cent depending on the lake, according to Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory data reported by CBC News — though interspersed with years when lake ice levels have been healthy and even relatively high. See the video below for how ice cover has changed over the decades:

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