By Kari Lydersen
This article is part of the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. For more information, go to pulitzercenter.org/connected-coastlines-initiative.
In the 1960s, the Great Lakes region, like much of the U.S., enjoyed unprecedented economic expansion. At the same time, the lakes themselves were in tough shape, with industries pouring out pollutants with seeming impunity.
The 1970s brought rapid improvements as the U.S. and Canada passed environmental protection legislation. But not long after, a shrinking market for steel, growth of global trade and migration of manufacturing to the Sun Belt started reshaping the economy. Cities like Gary, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo lost jobs and population. The region took on the name “Rust Belt,” a nod to its deteriorating condition.
Today many Great Lakes communities are beginning to heal from economic shifts and traumas. But even as they do, they face yet another threat: climate change.
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The Great Lakes region is highly vulnerable to the heat waves, flooding and severe storms expected to increase with climate change. Mean annual temperature could increase 2.7 to 7.2 °F (1.5 to 4.0 °C) by century’s end, according to the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). And precipitation is expected to become heavier in winter and spring and scarcer in summer.
“Climate change is a constant, and it affects every single issue,” says Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
As climate change makes other parts of the U.S. increasingly inhospitable, some speculate that the Great Lakes region could become a “climate refuge” with its relatively moderate temperatures and ample freshwater, for municipal, industrial and recreational use.
“It’s not about heavy industry like it used to be; it’s an amenity and quality of life issue,” says David Ullrich, advisor to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. “Great Lakes cities have a tremendous advantage in terms of the access to water.”
Agriculture is fundamental to the Great Lakes region’s economy and culture, but fertilizer that washes off fields into waterways can stimulate the growth of toxin-producing algae. In 2014 half a million people in Toledo were told to avoid drinking tap water for 72 hours because of contamination from algae.
The increasingly heavy storms and warmer temperatures coming with climate change are likely to exacerbate the problem. But innovative solutions are in the works, including initiatives to stem the flow of nutrients into the lakes.
Climate change is also exacerbating fluctuations in Great Lakes water levels. Extreme levels spell trouble for ships and power plants and create erosion and flooding problems.
“What used to be a 100-year record is now becoming a 10-year norm,” says ELPC executive director Howard Learner. “We need to rethink shoreline infrastructure.”
The Great Lakes are home to more than 180 non-native species. Some have wreaked havoc on cities’ water intake structures and gobbled up the plankton that forms the base of the food chain, while others decimate fish stocks.
Progress has been made on stemming the influx of invasives, but climate change could exacerbate the problems caused by invasives already in the Great Lakes if native species suffer from warmer water while invasive species thrive. Efforts to stem the tide of invasive species will likely need to adapt as climate change shifts the ecological balance.
When heavy storms overwhelm combined sewer systems, untreated sewage is released into lakes and rivers. Cities including Chicago, Detroit and Toronto have worked to reduce stormwater runoff through green infrastructure: permeable pavement, rain gardens, rain barrels and retention ponds. Other urban areas such as Duluth and Milwaukee have nearly eliminated combined sewer overflows by upgrading their systems.
But climate change will keep heavier rains coming. At the same time, sewer pipes will continue to age and crack, allowing water to infiltrate them and add to the burden.
In 1995, Chicago simmered through a heat wave that killed more than 700 people. Heat also facilitates the formation of harmful smog and stresses the electric grid. These problems are only expected to increase as temperatures climb.
To cope, cities are developing resilience plans that include emergency measures for heat waves. Some also are offering assistance with energy bills and building weatherization.
Revamping the energy system is key to both surviving climate change impacts and reducing the region’s contribution to climate change.
In Great Lakes cities, as elsewhere, low-income people tend to suffer most from the adverse impacts of climate change and the fossil fuels that contribute to it. But some are pushing back.
In Chicago, for example, residents including Alliance for the Great Lakes community planning manager Olga Bautista are working to transform the Southeast Side from a storage site for coal and petroleum coke to a community known for green jobs and infrastructure.
All told, the climate crisis poses an immense challenge for residents of the Great Lakes region. But just as people rose to the challenges of the past with incredible engineering feats, there’s clearly abundant potential for positive change today.
“Now we have the chance to think about what are we going to do, with the workforce, with the land devastated by industry, to think about how we can put our families to work to repair the harm,” says Bautista. “Because our most important resource is our people.”
What else would you like to know about how climate change is affecting the Great Lakes region? Share your question to inform future reporting.
“From Rust to Resilience: What climate change means for Great Lakes cities” is a collaborative reporting project that includes six members of the Institute for Nonprofit News (Belt Magazine, The Conversation, Ensia, Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television, MinnPost and Side Effects Public Media) as well as WUWM Milwaukee, Indiana Public Broadcasting and The Water Main from American Public Media. This story is part of the Pulitzer Center's nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.