Climate Change, Water Pollution and the Future of Lake Superior

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It’s no secret to those of us who follow these things that Lake Superior’s water level has climatologists worried: while the Great Lakes all normally rise and fall on a cycle lasting about 13 years, some researchers have been concerned for quite a while now that this behavior seems to have become less predictable than before.

While some of this can be explained as the result of global warming in general, it’s also true that the lake’s temperature is actually increasing much faster than that of the surrounding environment. Scientists have speculated that this is related to less ice forming on the surface in water: ice, being white, reflects more sunlight than liquid water, helping to keep the lake cooler.

dirty lake water

Not yet Time to Panic, but Maybe Time to Act

Of course, the jury is still out as far as Lake Superior’s eventual fate is concerned<. It takes an unbelievable amount of energy to heat up 2,900 cubic miles (12,000 km3) of water, so these changes happen slowly. This is definitely a case where one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but there is also a real risk of convergent effects leading to a runaway scenario that can’t easily be stopped. If this should happen to the full 10% of the planet’s unfrozen fresh water supply that Lake Superior contains…

Several analysts are already predicting that we will see “water wars” within our lifetimes. As climate change and pollution combine to make drinkable water a scarce commodity, full-scale conflicts for control of rivers and aquifers may become no more than inevitable.

The Spectre of Pollution

Of course, it’s At present, highly unlikely that we’ll ever see Lake Superior actually run dry, or that Canada and the United States will go to war with one another any time soon. There is another potential problem we should be aware of, though.

Every hydrological system has what is referred to as its “dilution capacity”. Some pollutants, like most organic compounds, are quickly degraded naturally and eventually re-enter the biosphere as harmless substances. Others, such as heavy metals and petroleum, simply accumulate, with their final concentration in the water determined by the lake’s dilution capacity. If this concentration is too high, it becomes a dead lake: much like the Dead Sea, there’s nowhere for contaminants to go and the level of toxicity can only go up.

Why We Should be Thinking in Terms of the Year 2050

Lake Superior offers some of the purest water around. This isn’t, however, just good for fishing and diving in. This major reservoir can also be seen as North America’s insurance policy for the centuries to come. Even if other bodies of water happen to become unusable, the entire continent’s people and the agriculture they rely on will still be able to go on.

This, of course, assumes that current and future politicians will stop assuming that “everything will turn out all right” regardless of what we do. Although we won’t be seeing the true effects of what is done today until many years in the future, we can expect unpredictable but unpleasant consequences if lawmakers don’t stop simply rubberstamping whatever regulations Big Business likes best. Remember: when things really start going wrong, the grandchildren of the rich will be able to flee to New Zealand or wherever the problems haven’t manifested yet, leaving the descendants of ordinary people in Duluth and Thunder Bay to face the music.

polluted water

So What Now?

The thought of a parched world imploding in on itself is certainly a scary one, but if it sounds like science fiction, that’s because these possible outcomes are still several decades in the future. What we may be sure of, though, is that once the calamity ball really starts to roll, there will be no stopping it.

While no single individual can hope to avoid this doomsday scenario on their own, each of us makes a multitude of decisions that can help or hurt. You don’t necessarily need a big pressure washer in your garage if a smaller one will do. If all you need a car for is shopping and going to church, don’t buy something that was designed to cross the Rockies.

Most importantly, perhaps, we should start holding our elected officials, locally and nationally, accountable for their promises and actions. Few of them seem to have the gumption required to tie a shoelace without assistance, never mind understand complex, long-term environmental issues. Collectively, we need to stop thinking ahead only up to the next election – what’s really needed is a 200-year plan.