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Great Lakes Face Severe Impacts from Rapid Warming

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Rapid warming in the Great Lakes is likely to bring more extreme storms, degraded water quality, increased erosion, and challenges for farmers, the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center warns in a report issued last week.

The region is warming faster than the rest of the continental United States, with annual mean air temperatures up 0.9°C/1.6°F from 1901-1960 to 1985-2016, The Associated Press reports.

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“Warming is expected to continue this century, with rates depending on the volume of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide and methane that humans pump into the atmosphere,” AP reports. “As the air warms, it will hold more moisture, which likely will mean heavier winter snowstorms and spring rains—with more flooding in vulnerable areas. Yet summers will be hotter and drier.”

Those changes matter, because the Great Lakes “hold about one-fifth of the world’s surface fresh water and are so large that they influence regional weather,” the news agency notes. “They keep nearby lands cooler in summer and warmer in winter than those farther inland, while their humidity fuels ‘lake-effect’ snowfall and summer rains. In addition to providing drinking water for millions of people, they are the backbone of an economy built on manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism.”

University of Illinois atmospheric scientist Don Weubbles, former assistant director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy under U.S. President Barack Obama, said climate change “is already affecting the climate of the Great Lakes region and the physical behaviour of the Great Lakes themselves.”

The report by 18 scientists found that annual precipitation in the region increased 10% from 1901 to 2015, compared to 4% for the U.S. as a whole, with much of the difference taking the shape of unusually large storms. The region is on track for up to 40 more severe heat days per year by 2100, producing health risks for older adults and children with asthma. Winter snowfalls will decrease overall, but lake-effect snow squalls will become more harsh through the Lake Ontario snowbelt in New York.

The region could see longer growing seasons, but that gain may be offset by wetter weather making it harder to plant crops in the spring, followed by summer droughts. Drinking water, beaches, dunes, and shorelines will all be degraded.

“The study did not include a cost-benefit analysis of a warming climate’s likely results,” AP states. “Several of the scientists said in a phone news conference there may be some bright spots but that the economic impact would be mostly negative.” ELPC President Howard Learner listed the steps state and local governments can take—increasing energy efficiency, embracing renewables, and preventing runoff of nutrient-rich manure from large livestock farms—to counter the Trump administration’s extreme deregulatory agenda. “We cannot wait for the Trump administration to accept sound science,” he said. “We need to step up and act.”