Climate Change in the Great Lakes

  • Julie Hinderer, Celia Haven, Melinda Koslow
  • Mar 30, 2011

The Great Lakes region is currently experiencing warmer air and water temperatures, decreases of lake ice, longer onset of lake stratification, changes to migration patterns of wildlife, more variable water levels, decreases in soil quality, longer growing seasons and extreme precipitation. Scientists associate these trends with climate change and predict that the trends and their associated impacts may intensify over time. Climate change adaptation provides an opportunity to build resiliency in anticipation of new and accelerated trends and impacts as a result of mounting greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Stakeholders throughout the Great Lakes are beginning to plan for and implement adaptation measures that will help prepare for and diminish these impacts.

On September 22, 2010 over sixty stakeholders from throughout the Great Lakes region came together in Buffalo, New York to discuss ways to advance the human response to anticipated climate change impacts through climate change adaptation. The workshop was titled Climate Change in the Great Lakes: Advancing the Regional Discussion. Stakeholders in attendance represented states and cities, federal agencies, Canada, the International Joint Commission, industry, environmental non-governmental organizations, First Nations, tribal nations and academic institutions. Workshop organizers included National Wildlife Federation, Great Lakes Commission and the Council of Great Lakes Industries. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also helped to shape the day-long program.

The goals of the workshop were to provide guidance from various Great Lakes sectors on how to integrate climate change adaptation into actions of United States federal agencies, share information about climate change adaptation efforts, and enhance collaboration among participating sectors. Some workshop findings aim to inform Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other federal funding decisions, region-wide practices and strategies and on-the-ground projects.

Workshop discussions were built on the following themes:

  • General ways that various sectors have or will be adapting to climate change.
  • Climate change adaptation actions that have and have not worked.
  • Climate change adaptation actions specific to the Great Lakes region.
  • Needs for effective climate change adaptation in the Great Lakes region.
  • Ways that ecological restoration efforts as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative or other federal funding programs can be improved to integrate current and future climate change impacts.

The majority of the workshop consisted of small group breakout discussions which were used to help participants focusing on adaptation efforts and needs in individual sectors. This report examines sector-by-sector summaries on adaptation, main themes of discussion, regional multi-stakeholder recommendations and recommendations to federal programs such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in light of climate change impacts. Full proceedings are available upon request.

Although some recommendations were sector-specific, several overarching, multi-sector recommendations for the Great Lakes region emerged from the discussions. These include:

  • Apply climate science to on-the-ground actions such as wildlife management, coastal or habitat restoration, industrial actions, resource management, climate mitigation plans, infrastructure, urban planning and others.
    • For example, update management decisions using the most recent scientific findings. A partnership between academic researchers and resource managers is one measure that will aid this activity.
  • Build cross-sector partnerships and increase knowledge-sharing portals and forums.
    • For example, utilize handheld technology when doing on-the-ground work such as, but not limited to: online chat systems, smart phone or laptop applications and data portals.
  • Emphasize quality of life benefits of climate change adaptation.
    • For example, support and share studies that attempt to quantify economic, social or related quality of life benefits from adaptation efforts.
  • Provide economic incentives and information, increase or re-purpose funding efforts to include climate change.
    • For example, implement economic incentives such as tax incentives or funding support for adaptation in industries and private sectors.

Overarching recommendations specific to federal programs such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) include:

  • Integrate climate variability and change into upcoming requests for proposals.
    • For example, require grant recipients to demonstrate how a restorations project will also aid in climate change adaptation.
  • Streamline collaboration and knowledge sharing throughout the entire life-cycle of the grant.
    • For example, encourage partnerships by allowing the submission of joint proposals.
  • Emphasize cross-cutting efforts and goals across focus areas.
    • For example, prioritize projects that will result in multiple benefits over multiple focus areas, e.g. combats invasive species and restores coastal habitat.
  • Include climate change adaptation for cities to enhance sustainable development.
    • For example, fund green infrastructure urban restoration projects in the form of rain gardens, green alleys or green roofs to help urban areas adapt.
  • Act both short-term and long-term.
    • For example, fund projects aimed directly at near term ecosystem improvements, but include funding for long-term monitoring to ensure a baseline of information about actual ecosystem improvements or other trends.

The Great Lakes region shares an important freshwater resource over national boundaries and varied interests. It has a long history of regional coordination and collaboration among diverse sectors and stakeholder interests. In the face of climate change, however, we will need to strengthen the way we work together. We must also work to integrate applicable science findings into our everyday decision-making. Climate change adaptation is an opportunity not only to reduce the impacts of a threat, but also to capitalize on more efficient ways to protect and sustain this valued resource.

Climate Change in the Great Lakes

Advancing strategies to help wildlife adapt to a changing climate in the Great Lakes region.


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