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Great Lakes Article:

Scientists Say Climate Change is Dramatically Affecting Great Lakes

By JERRY ZREMSKI
News Washington Bureau
8/12/2002


Imagine the Buffalo summer in 2050. It's hot the way summers used to be hot in the Maryland panhandle, before it got hotter there, too.

Broad sandy beaches line Lake Erie. Bathers enjoy this new weather extreme as if it were an antidote to Buffalo's other new weather extreme: a big increase in precipitation, sometimes in the form of blizzards, but mostly rain.

One thing is missing from this lakeside scene: the ships. They disappeared as the beaches appeared, driven out of business by the new low water levels.

These new hot summers are imperfect in other ways, too. Shallower water means pollutants are more concentrated, wreaking havoc for local water authorities.

The Niagara flows so slowly now that the river's great hydropower project is a historic relic.

And the woods to the south and the east of the city aren't what they once were since the maple trees started dying off.

Welcome to Western New York in the age of global warming. In some ways it's oddly reminiscent of 2001 and 2002.

Just like then, winters pack an early wallop, and summers range from sultry to stifling.

In other words, the Buffalo of your children's future is likely to be very different than the one you know, the Buffalo of consistent but not crazy lake effect snow, the Buffalo of soft summer breezes and radiant fall colors.

Of course, that future scenario is just that - a projection of what very well could happen if the scientific models prove to be true. If they do, global warming will remake Western New York.

"It's going to affect everything," said Rich Thomas, chief of water management at the Army Corps of Engineers in Buffalo, where the impact of climate change is a growing concern.

Those concerns reflect a dramatic change in the global warming debate. A decade ago, the question was whether "greenhouse gases" - the kind that spew out of your car and into the atmosphere - are increasing temperatures across the globe.

Yet after the warmest decade in recorded history, most scientists regard global warming as a reality, though there's still a political debate about what ought to be done about it.

In fact, after the Environmental Protection Agency recently produced a report spelling out dire consequences, President Bush dismissed it as the product of "bureaucrats" and defended his own plan to limit the increases in greenhouse gases rather than cut their output.

Those bureaucrats predict some big changes ahead.

"For the Great Lakes region, the next century could bring one of the greatest environmental transformations since the end of the last Ice Age," the EPA said in a study on global warming in the Great Lakes.

Temperatures are expected to rise, on average, from 31/2 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. Temperatures in Western New York might come to resemble what western Maryland experiences today, according to David Easterling, chief scientist for the National Climatic Data Center.

 

Changes in Lake Erie

As temperatures rise, Lake Erie as we know it would be transformed. Like the rest of the Great Lakes, it would start to evaporate, meaning water levels would fall by as much as five feet over the next century. Most scientists expect the bulk of the drop to occur in the next few decades. The remaining water would be warmer and might never freeze during winter.

There is a plus side.

"You'd have some nice wide sand beaches," said Frank Quinn, retired head of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.

But that's about where the plus side ends.

Fed by greater evaporation from the Great Lakes, overall precipitation could increase 10 to 20 percent, the EPA says.

"A lot of scientists mention getting fewer storms but of greater intensity," said Helen Domske, a researcher at the University at Buffalo's Great Lakes Program. "What could be a better description of last winter?"

In the first few decades of warming, lake-effect snowstorms could be more frequent, thanks to Lake Erie's refusal to freeze. But Easterling said temperatures will probably warm to the point where lake-effect rain is increasingly common. As a result, lake-effect snow could decrease by half within a century.

What's unknown is exactly when it will be warm enough for the snow to diminish.

Essentially, the warmer temperatures would pick up more of Lake Erie and deposit it on the land. And that would create all sorts of problems.

Great Lakes ships have to reduce their cargo load every time the level of the lakes drops, said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association. And if the lakes dropped by five feet, the smaller loads would boost the cost of shipping so much that shippers might have to switch to the rails or trucks.

"This could conceivably put the Great Lakes shipping industry out of business," Nekvasil said.

It could do the very same thing to the New York State Power Authority's Niagara Power Project. When lake levels fell last year, the project's power output fell by as much as 20 percent. And last year's lake drop was minuscule compared to what's expected in the future.

As a result, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory predicts "greatly reduced electricity generation there under low flow conditions."

Things don't look much better for municipalities such as Buffalo that get their water from the lake or its adjoining rivers. Thomas, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said most water intakes in the Great Lakes basin are located in spots where the water would likely be much more polluted if lake levels were lower. That could force hugely expensive improvements in local water plants.

"The biggest problem will be the water intakes," Thomas said. "The quality of the water won't be as good."

You might think that all of these problems might be solved through increased dredging, but that's unlikely. Costs would easily reach well into the billions of dollars, and by solving the water-level problem, the dredging could cause another: finding a safe place for all the contaminated sediment that would be removed.

 

Wells might run dry

Scientists say the shallower, warmer water could pose problems beyond the lakes, too. People who get their water from shallow wells might find them running dry.

Brook trout could become increasingly rare in the Great Lakes basin, pushed aside by warmer-water fish such as bass and walleye.

And Western New York's forests would come to look far different, too. Maple, beech and birch trees now dominate much of the forest cover in Western New York, but many researchers expect oak and pine to come to dominate over the next century. Fall would be far less colorful.

"No, you're not going to have a dead-looking forest," said Ann Fisher, an environmental economist at Penn State who headed the study of the Mid-Atlantic region in a recent national assessment of global warming. "You'd just have a gradual change."

Of course, that's just a prediction. Scientists caution that they're basing their descriptions of the future on climate models that may or may not be accurate. And there's debate among the scientists about those models.

Nevertheless, scientists generally regard warming as a matter of fact now. "The consensus is getting very solid," said Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator at Great Lakes United, a Buffalo-based environmental group.

What's less certain is exactly what should be done.

Bush has proposed a plan that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent, relative to the size of the economy, over the next decade. "The president's plan is predicated on ensuring the strength and growth of the American economy," said James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

 

Bush plan "science fiction'

Political opponents and many environmentalists say the Bush plan won't do nearly enough to curb greenhouse gases. For one thing, the administration refused to sign the Kyoto protocol, an international agreement to curb global warming. And for another, the plan it did put forward would allow overall emissions of greenhouse gases to increase.

Add it all up and the Bush plan for addressing climate change is nothing but "science fiction," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who may run for president in 2004.

For scientists looking toward the future, though, climate change is already a reality. Fisher, the Penn State economist, notes that she looked for benefits that might spring from global warming in the Mid-Atlantic. "It was very difficult to identify benefits," she said. "The damaging impacts tend to be larger."

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