Because of climate change, fears of a Great Lakes dead zone

By Robin Amer, WBEZ91.5
24 June 2011

A satellite photo shows the expanding dead zone in Lake Eerie. Some scientists fear the other Great Lakes may suffer a similar fate. (Courtesy of NASA)

By end of the century, Illinois will feel like Texas. And Michigan will feel like Arkansas.

This frightening prediction comes from the University of Michigan’s Don Scavia, quoting data from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Scavia directs the university’s Environmental Sustainability Institute and teaches courses on the environment and civil and environmental engineering.  When he spoke at the Field Museum last October he laid out a disturbing list of changes already taking place in the Great Lakes region as the result of climate change.

According to Scavia these changes includes:

  • The last frost in spring is coming earlier and earlier, while the first frost in fall is coming later and later.This is extending the growing season but is also changing what plants and crops can grow in the region.
  • All five Great Lakes have less winter ice cover than in the past. Less ice in the winter leads to more evaporation in the summer, which leads to lower overall water levels.  

But perhaps the most frightening potential scenario is the possibility for each of the Great Lakes to become a dead zone: A water body stripped of oxygen where no fish or plants can survive.

This was Lake Erie’s fate in the 1960s, resulting from a combination of factors, including algal blooms caused by industrial pollution, human waste and farm run-off. The devastation in the lake led some states, including Indiana in 1966, to ban phosphorous from commercial fertilizers and dish detergents.  It also led to the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.

Oxygen levels in Lake Erie improved in the 1980s, but worsened again in the 1990s. And recent studies have shown algae in Lake Erie is making a disturbing comeback.

In the audio above, Scavia explains why climate change is renewing fears about dead zones in the other Great Lakes, and what we may be able to do to stop it. 

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Don Scavia spoke at an event presented by the Field Museum in October of 2010. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Dr. Scavia’s name.