This is among the longest pieces I’ve ever published on this blog, a feature I wrote recently on the record high levels of the Great Lakes in general and Lake Ontario in particular. The lakes are even higher now than when this was written a couple of weeks ago.
“We must all unite in fearing the impending effects of climate change and prepare now for desertification, flooding, crop loss and vectors of disease! Species will be lost and humans will go to war over the last acres of arable land!”
Such has been typical of rallying cries from the activists who want us all to react in lock – step to the invocation of catastrophic man-made climate change. Climate advocacy organizations went into high gear this year, ramping up efforts to see their media cronies characterize the climate less as a matter of concern, more as an emergency. Sadly, those born after 1985 or so likely know nothing else of earth’s climate outlook than the messaging broadcast by media giants on behalf of the political advocacy groups who keep the “emergency” alive.
Also though, perhaps lost in the din of weeping and agitation, was a warning beginning in the late 1990’s that, due to anthropogenic global warming, our Great Lakes were losing water. This was, of course, permanent and an irreversible trend. This did not escape my attention at the time and I’d have to admit that I was among those worried, failing to see at the time that all bad things were now necessarily tied to global warming.
Here’s one example of what you would have seen in late 1990’s media:
From The Christian Science Monitor, 1997:
“Fast-rising water use and global warming together could cause the water level in the Great Lakes to drop up to three feet and outflow to the St. Lawrence River to fall by a quarter over the next 40 years, a new report says…”
“We know there are going to be water shortages in the United States after the turn of the century,” says Sarah Miller, co-author of the report by Great Lakes United, a Toronto-based environmental umbrella group. “If we don’t do something now, we’re putting the lakes at risk.”
(Clayton, M., 1997, February. Shrinking Great Lakes: Where is All the Water Going? Christian Science Monitor.)
It goes without saying that, to the media who are more than eager to publish doomsday prognostications, this impending calamity was irrefutable – the apocalyptic dryness was, in fact, already upon us. (And it must be remembered that one out of every six school children goes to bed thirsty.) The thin blue decline curve of a thousand graphs showed that the Great Lakes would be five desiccated Saltan Seas by the end of the century.
This was a clear call to action and since neither the common people of Canada nor of the United States could be relied on to vote for a solution to a problem that no clear majority really saw as a problem and certainly would not have reached consensus on solutions for, it was up to the unelected bureaucracy to act. And so, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America stepped in, producing an initial report which concluded that:
1) Great Lakes levels would almost certainly be in decline by 2030
2) The period and thickness of ice cover would continue the decline witnessed since 1980.
3) Fish populations would be impacted in various ways but mostly negatively.
From Canada’s Globe and Mail:
“The Great Lakes are poised to become a lot less great because global warming will cause a dramatic plunge in the amount of water they contain, a new report says…”
“Compiled by a team of scientists from Canada and the United States, the report says the rising temperatures accompanying climate change will cause the lakes to shrink, with water levels in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan likely falling about three metres by 2030…”
“‘It’s the higher temperature which is really driving these future scenarios,’ said John Magnuson, a limnologist (the scientific study of fresh water) and emeritus professor from the University of Wisconsin. He said “almost every” computer model used by researchers is projecting future declines in the amount of water in the lakes…”
(Mittelstaedt, M. April, 2003. Great Lakes May Shrink, Report Says. Globe and Mail.)
From Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region (Union of Concerned Scientists) (2003):
“Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region explores the potential consequences of climate change, good and bad, for the character, economy, and environment of the Great Lakes region during the coming century. It also examines actions that can be taken now to help forestall many of the most severe consequences of climate change for North America’s Heartland…”
“Lake levels have been highly variable in the 1900s, but declines in both the inland lakes and the Great Lakes are anticipated in the future. Declines in the duration of winter ice are expected to continue…”
“As lake levels drop, costs to shipping in the Great Lakes are likely to increase, along with costs of dredging harbors and channels and of adjusting docks, water intake pipes, and other infrastructure…”
“Water withdrawals from the Great Lakes are already the subject of contentious debate, and pressures for more water for irrigation, drinking, and other human uses may intensify the conflict…”
(Kling, G.W. et al. 2003. Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region. )
At least 20 million dollars of Canadian and American taxpayer monies were spent over the next 5 years creating a “Plan 2007” to better regulate water levels for shipping, recreational and riparian needs. The previous plan, finalized in 1958, now seemed antiquated, especially with rising fears of global warming and model projections of declining precipitation and increased evapotranspiration in the Great Lakes watershed. Specifically, in the development of the 2007 plan, water levels from the previous 100 years were used, a period that encompassed both very high and very low levels. The Great Lakes, like all lakes, do fluctuate substantially. But then, climate modeling projections were imposed on these data sets to forecast the most likely scenarios for the century ahead. (Kling, G.W. et al. 2003. Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region. ) Finally, after the exhaustive labors of 200+ researchers and $20 million expended, plan 2007 was ready for implementation!
The plan was immediately killed by the International Joint Commission and planning (and budgeting) for a new multi-year study was begun. From the IJC Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River Plan 2014 (Protecting against extreme water levels, restoring wetlands and preparing for climate change):
“The IJC informed the governments that ‘the Commission has determined that Plan 2007 is not a practical option for implementation and concludes that the regulation of water levels and flows should be based on a revised set of goals and objectives and criteria, specifically moving towards more natural flows to benefit the environment, while respecting other interests.’”
(International Joint Commission (2014). Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Plan 201: Protecting against extreme water levels, restoring wetlands and preparing for climate change.)
So that was the end of that. But the trough was merely re-filled with taxpayer millions and the scientists and politicians got back to work on what would become Plan 2014, a strategy that would better take into account the desires of a broader range of interested parties, have its foundation lain on sounder science, bring the lakes closer to natural levels of variability and take into account more recent climate models for good measure.
Plan 2014 went into effect in 2016, to the applause of only a few organizations like the International Joint Commission. More than a few tears were likely shed as memories flooded to mind of whole careers built since work toward Plan 2014 had begun. The future was bright though. After all the millions “invested” and years of assiduous labor, Lake Ontario would be put right.
Then something totally unexpected happened: it began to rain. Or, more accurately, it hardly stopped raining in the vast watershed of the Great Lakes. The watershed experienced 10 to 50 percent more precipitation, mostly in the form of rainfall, than in an average year, depending on location. (2017 Annual Climate Trends and Impacts Summary for the Great Lakes Basin, U. Michigan, 2018). An all time high lake level record was set for Lake Ontario, a scenario that the diligent planners were helpless to mitigate.
(Environment and Climate Change Canada and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2017 Annual Climate Trends and Impacts Summary for the Great Lakes Basin. 2018.)
2018 was still high but closer to average and then rain began to fall again in the spring of 2019, pushing levels up, up, up. On June 1, levels actually topped, by a mere .03 feet, the record high set in 2017. Needless to say, these levels are well outside of the target parameters decided upon by the perfect plan designed between 2000 and 2014.
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology)
It’s the type of conundrum that arises occasionally when those populating government bureaus are more responsive to current political pressures than they are to the long cycles in which the ecology of the earth actually operates. Now, sixteen years after some Concerned Scientists issued the Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region report warning of falling lake levels, declining ice and dying fish, Great Lakes levels are at record highs, ice cover has recently been at near-record high coverage, and the fish of the lakes are simply doing really, really good. The last couple of years, salmon runs on Lake Ontario set records, the Lake Erie walleye population is at a record level this year and the cold-loving lake trout are making an incredible comeback in Lake Erie, of all places! These are just the examples that spring to mind quickly for me.
Modern water level regulation for the lake began in the 1950’s with construction of the Moses Saunders Dam on the St. Lawrence River. About sixty years have passed since then and an economy, an infrastructure and an array of lakeside communities have developed during that time, all adapted to the constancy of 20th Century lake levels. Then a plan to replicate natural conditions and mitigate the ill effects of climate change was put in place – but no one saw the high water trend coming, none of the experts, none of the politicians, none of the media establishment.
Earth and Space Science News (EOS) began covering the situation in 2017, when it was becoming clear to many that something had gone drastically wrong. From the article, “What Caused the Ongoing Flooding on Lake Ontario,”:
Quoting Robert Caldwell, a technical adviser to the IJC’s International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board:
” Although researchers know that the Great Lakes can experience extreme highs and lows, a narrative of chronic drought took over during this drawn-out period of low water levels, said Richard Rood, a climatologist at the University of Michigan’s Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Program. “A lot of the anticipation has been that lake levels due to climate change will be declining,” he said. Once the idea of sustained drought “got out there,” Rood continued, “it started getting echoed from one group to the next.”
(Wendel, J. (2017, Aug. 3) What Caused the Ongoing Flooding on Lake Ontario. Retrieved from eos.org.)
Lake Ontario today looms larger than ever before as an object lesson on why we resist the implementation of “solutions” to the climate “emergency.” This reason to resist is not just unforeseen consequences but unforeseeable consequences which are ineradicable from any manipulation of the environment (or the economy). This is a solution brought to you by the people responsible for ethanol mandates and subsidies, for the expensive fiasco surrounding Freon for your air conditioners, for your nominally functional modern dishwasher, for your dysfunctional gas can nozzle and for matches that seldom make fire (I could devote a whole article to this one). To these people, I think it’s not really a problem that their solutions spin off innumerable new problems – these too need to be fixed by the talents of skillful and properly credentialed bureaucrats. New problems = job security. It’s a vicious cycle in which the Lake Ontario blunder is only a single lap around the track.
Hundreds of government and academic researchers reached consensus on the desiccated destiny of the big lakes. Millions were spent employing consultants and generating reports. But they still couldn’t read the future.
This is why we resist climate change solutions – 10,000 unforeseeable consequences created through efforts to mitigate the emergency that never was.