Posts Tagged ‘Lake Michigan’

Great Lakes Are on Thin Ice

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

The Great Lakes winter ice cover has dropped dramatically over the past 40 years, according to a new report. On average, peak ice has fallen by 71 percent; Lake Michigan’s ice cover has shrunk even more than that.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) compared satellite photos dating to 1973.  Jia Wang, a NOAA ice climatologist, said the changes are stark.  In a year like 1979, ice covered about 94 percent of the lakes in the coldest months of that winter.  “This winter the maximum ice cover is about five percent,” Wang said.  “It’s the lowest ever since the satellite era.”  The drop in ice cover is largely a result of rising temperatures due to climate change.  There are also other factors at play this year in particular, such as El Nino weather patterns.  According to Wang, such a loss of winter ice can cause several problems for the Great Lakes ecosystem.  For example, it can accelerate wintertime evaporation from the lakes, which could reduce water levels.  The trend could also stimulate more and earlier algae blooms, which damage water quality and habitat.  Additionally, it leaves the shoreline more exposed to waves, exacerbating erosion.

The changes in the Great Lakes could make them a dead zone. According to the University of Michigan’s Don Scavia, “By end of the century, Illinois will feel like Texas.  And Michigan will feel like Arkansas.”  Scavia, who leads the university’s Environmental Sustainability Institute, laid out a disconcerting list of changes already taking place in the Great Lakes region as the result of climate change.  According to Scavia the changes include the last frost in spring occurs earlier and earlier, while the first frost in fall is later and later.  This is extending the growing season, as well as changing what plants and crops can grow in the region.  Storms are more intense, and major weather events happen more frequently.

The most alarming potential scenario is the possibility that the Great Lakes to become a dead zone, a body of water that lacks oxygen and no fish or plants can survive.  This happened to Lake Erie in the 1960s, resulting from algal blooms caused by industrial pollution, human waste and farm run-off.  Lake Erie’s devastation led to the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.  Oxygen levels in the lake improved in the 1980s, but worsened again in the 1990s.  Recent studies have shown that algae in Lake Erie is returning.

Although lakefront residents may enjoy the more temperate beachfront this year, ice is crucial in maintaining coastal wetlands and water depth.  The wetlands act as an incubator for wildlife in the Great Lakes basin.  Wetlands — the marshy shorelines that harbor numerous plants and animals — require the constant variation of the seasons and Great Lakes water levels.  The lack of substantial ice coverage results in greater evaporation, which leaves water levels across the Great Lakes lower over the long term.

“Having low water levels next year doesn’t make me nervous.  Having low levels over the last 10 years makes me worry,” said Donald Uzarski, director of Central Michigan University’s Institute for Great Lakes Research.  “We’ll see what happens with respect to the water levels.  When the water level’s lower, the coastal wetlands stretch out towards the water’s edge,” out into exposed shoreline areas that are usually under water.

Rather surprisingly, extreme summer and winter temperatures are actually considered good for wetlands. These conditions can feed the growth of wetlands, which are “very dynamic and very responsive to water levels,” according to Kurt Kowalski of the United States Geological Survey.  Climatologists studying lake ice have noticed a steadier pattern of temperatures within the last 10 years.  “The frequency of mild winters has been on the increase.  We’re certainly in a trend for milder winters now,” said Ray Assel, a retired climatologist, recently of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

According to the Canadian Ice Service, ice cover on the Great Lakes for the week of March 5, 2011 was approximately 36 percent and close to the historical average of 38 percent.  By contrast, ice cover for the week of March 5, 2012 has been exceptionally low and is only about 12 percent.

Writing on the earthsky.org website, Deanna Conners says that “In fact, ice cover has been so low this year on Lake Erie that officials began removing the ice boom that prevents large chunks of ice from flowing out into the Niagara River on February 28, 2012.  This is the earliest date for removal since the boom was first installed in the mid 1960s.  The ice boom acts to prevent ice damage to hydropower intake equipment.  Early boom removal is our harbinger of an early spring in western New York.  Dare I say that I think the groundhog was wrong this year?”

Another sign of the times comes from the Daily Great Lakes Seaway Shipping News, which notes that “Shipments of iron ore on the Great Lakes totaled 3,587,016 net tons in January, an increase of 24 percent over a year ago, and 57 percent ahead of the month’s five-year average”.  In typical winters when the Great Lakes have a more widespread ice cover, the billion dollar shipping activity comes to a virtual halt.  Click on this link to view a map of the extent of Great Lakes ice during the cold and snowy winter of 1979, the last time the Great Lakes were more than 95 percent frozen over.

Temperatures Rising in America’s Freshwater Lakes

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

The waters of the Great Lakes are warmer than usual this year, prompting scientists to worry that this may not be a good thing.  All five Great Lakes have been at or near record-high temperatures compared with the 30 years when such measurements have been taken.  The bad news is that there’s still a month remaining before the lakes typically reach their warmest temperatures.  Jay Austin, a physics professor at the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth, MN, says the water is warmer because last winter there was little or no ice cover to reflect sunlight.   Scientists are unsure if it’s a blip or the new normal.  A warmer Lake Superior might be a plus for the tourism industry, but it might be bad for fishing, wildlife habitat and water levels.

“Swimmers are enjoying it,” said Al Oleksuik, who lives near the Welland River in Chippewa.  “I notice a difference here.  (The water is 24 C). It usually doesn’t hit that until mid-August. I have a feeling we’re headed towards (26 C), which is extremely warm.”  Austin said the lake is 5 to 7 C warmer than it usually is in mid-July, while the Great Lakes in general are running 2 to 7 C warmer.  “It’s going to set records, or come close, depending on where you are,” he said.

Writing in Chimes, a publication of Grand Rapids-based Calvin College, Geneva Langeland says that “Lake Michigan is warming up?  Swimmers who brave the lake’s often frigid waters might beg to differ.  But Lake Michigan’s waves aren’t alone in their slight temperature uptick; NASA satellite data suggest that lake temperatures worldwide have risen in the last 25 years, most likely as a result of global climate change.  Phillip Schneider and Simon Hook, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, departed from the typical strategy of measuring global warming trends by gauging air temperatures near Earth’s surface.  Instead, the study, published in the 2010 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, used infrared satellite imagery to track changing surface temperatures in 167 large lakes splashed across the globe — including our very own Great Lakes.  The satellite data suggest that, over the past 25 years, water temperatures in large lakes have risen between .81 and 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.  These shifting temperatures varied widely among continents and hemispheres.”

According to Langeland, “Schneider and Hook noted the greatest change in northern Europe; in general, the loftier latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere consistently reported the largest temperature upticks.  The Great Lakes land squarely in that northern region.  Huron, Superior, Michigan, Erie and Ontario together comprise the world’s largest freshwater lake system.  It should come as no surprise that the ‘Big Five’ were valuable players in this study.  In fact, the Great Lakes host nine temperature-gauging buoys that were vital in verifying NASA’s satellite temperature readings.  As Schneider said, ‘The results have implications for lake ecosystems, which can be adversely affected by even small water temperature changes.’  A degree or two might be imperceptible to us, but this tiny change can have surprising repercussions.  Every organism thrives within a particular temperature range.  Altering a habitat’s air and water temperatures even slightly will kill off some creatures while allowing others to unexpectedly thrive.”

Lakes in the American West are experiencing similarly increasing temperatures.  Warming that meets statistical significance was found in Lake Tahoe along the California-Nevada border; Pyramid Lake in Nevada; and the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which were warming at a rate of more than one degree Fahrenheit per decade.  “One of the things we want to do in the future is compare these results with what the climate models predict in the region,” Hook said.  “Measuring a model’s performance in replicating changes of the recent past gives scientists a way to test the accuracy of the models being used to project future conditions.”

“Our analysis provides a new, independent data source for assessing the impact of climate change over land around the world,” Schneider said. “The results have implications for lake ecosystems, which can be adversely affected by even small water temperature changes.”

Record Rain Predicted in the 100-Year Forecast

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

It’s going to rain.  According to a study by climatologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Texas Tech University, temperatures in Chicago will continue rising over the next century, largely due to human emissions of heat-trapping gasses.  The strength of that warming trend and the impact it brings depends on the amount of future emissions produced by the city and the world.  Katharine Hayhoe, a research associate professor in Texas Tech’s Department of Geosciences, co-led the team of more than 20 researchers along with Donald Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois.

Rains of more than 2 ½ inches a day, an amount that can activate sewage overflows into Lake Michigan, are expected to rise by 50 percent between now and 2039.  By the end of the century, the number of big storms could jump by an almost unbelievable 160 percent.  “We’ve already seen an increase in these extreme weather events, especially in the Midwest and Northeast,” said Don Wuebbles, a U. of I. climatologist who co-authored the study.  “Chicago has had two 100-year storms in three years.  Iowa has had three 100-year floods in less than 20 years.  That’s telling us something.”

Researchers studying Milwaukee’s sewer system concluded that heavy rains caused by climate change could equal a 20 percent increase in the number of sewage overflows, a disturbing sign for Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and other Midwestern industrial cities with similar systems.  As new research points to a changing climate — including heaver rains punctuated by periods of drought — Chicago officials are struggling with the likelihood that the city will need solutions other than the $3 billion Deep Tunnel, an underground network of giant sewer pipes and reservoirs that won’t be completed until 2029.  “There is no doubt that things are going to get tougher,” said Marcelo Garcia, a U. of I. hydrological engineer who is studying Deep Tunnel’s effectiveness.  “I like to think of the entire system as a giant bathtub.  They built a really big bathtub to collect all this water, but it turns out it isn’t nearly as big as what they need.”

But Chicago needs to do more, said Thomas Cmar, an attorney in the Chicago office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Every time the city tears up a street for improvements, they should be thinking about porous pavement in the parking lanes and street trees and rain gardens,” he said. “These things don’t require a lot of money upfront but can pay huge dividends down the line.”

The majority of climate scientists agree that rising global temperatures are changing rain patterns because of increased evaporation and more moisture in the air.  They are less certain about how fast climate change is happening and how human disruption of natural climate cycles affects day-to-day weather.

Another report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) concurs. More Extreme Weather and the U.S. Energy Infrastructure, The study details National Wildlife Federation how severe droughts, heavier rainfall events, changing snowmelt, and more intense tropical storms may cause significant disruptions to the nation’s energy grid, all while the existing system calls for upgrades. “Our hospitals, homes, and economy depend on an energy infrastructure that will be increasingly disrupted by extreme weather events related to climate change,” said Amanda Staudt, Ph.D., a NWF climate scientist and the report’s author.

“Less Is More” the Right Direction for Navy Pier Renovation

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Noted Chicago architect Ludwig Mies Navy Pier revamp needs some architectural originality.  van der Rohe’s famous maxim “Less is more” should apply to ambitious plans for revamping Chicago’s Navy Pier, the city’s top tourist destination.  Writing in the Chicago Tribune, architectural critic Blair Kamin says “The good news about the latest vision for the pier is that it discards the excesses of a 2006 plan that would have layered a roller coaster and an indoor water park onto an attraction that already resembles a shopping mall or a carnival midway.  But it is one thing to ditch a bad plan and another thing to find the creative spark necessary to bring order and élan to Navy Pier’s architectural mishmash.”

A bold design framework is needed for the 3,300-foot-long pier, which was a vision of Daniel Burnham and was completed in 1916.  The Urban Land Institute has issued a 40-page report with recommendations  that address the ways in which the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority could enhance the Pier, which has seen a fall in attendance to 8,000,000 annually from a high of 9,000,000 in 2000.  According to Kamin, “The report’s principal recommendations lack flashes of insight about the great public work, which originally consisted of classically inspired buildings framing freight and passenger sheds.  The sheds disappeared as part of the pier’s $225 million makeover, completed in 1995.  Still, the Urban Land Institute is offering a few promising ideas that could refresh the pier’s identity as a public pleasure ground and replace its once-graceful appearance.”

Among the recommendations are replacing the white fabric-roofed Skyline Stage with a 950-seat venue that would expand the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  This has the potential to restore the pier’s clean-lined silhouette.  Another is to replace the current Ferris wheel with a larger one similar to the London Eye.   Some of the elevated pier’s edges might be redesigned, giving visitors access to Lake Michigan.

“But as the report itself acknowledges, the next step is for architects to translate these vague notions into a reality that is both user friendly and visually striking,” Kamin says.  “Fortunately, pier officials say they will consider asking Chicago’s architects to submit redesign proposals based on the report.  And well they should, given that the city has a mother lode of design talent that’s been sidelined by the construction downturn.  It’s time to use that talent – and to use this fresh opportunity to make Navy Pier the great public space it ought to be.”

Is It Hot Enough for You?

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Global warming is already impacting Chicago-area weather, foliage and wildlife.It’s not your imagination.  Chicago’s weather is getting warmer and climate scientists, botanists and zoologists have collected evidence that show real-time changes in seasonal timing and weather patterns that are altering the region’s ecosystems.   Writing in the Chicago Tribune, reporter William Mullen says “This is what experts say we should expect in the future:  Shorter, warmer winters with fewer but more severe snowstorms; longer, more intense summers with fewer rainfalls and more drought, but also an increase in sporadic, intense, basement-flooding downpours; lower lake- and river-water levels; and less winter ice cover on Lake Michigan and area streams.”

Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance dedicated to protecting nature and enriching life, has issued the “Chicago Wilderness Climate Action Plan for Nature”, a far-reaching plan designed to guide local governments, companies and conservation groups on coping with environmental change.  “We’re in for warming regardless of what we do now,” said Robert Moseley, director of conservation with the Illinois Nature Conservancy and the plan’s lead author.  As an example, the Arbor Day Foundation’s 1990 national “U.S. Hardiness Zone” map put Chicago in Zone 5, where winter temperatures can fall as low as 20 degrees below zero.  By contrast, the 2006 map placed Chicago in Zone 6, where the coldest winter temperatures register at 10 below zero.

According to Mullen, “Too much CO2 can warm the planet too much, and in the last 240 years, the fossil fuel-powered Industrial Revolution raised atmospheric levels from 280 parts per million (ppm) to more than 380 ppm, raising worldwide temperatures at an alarming rate.  As countries like China and India industrialize, the increase in CO2 levels is accelerating, and so is global warming, climate scientists warn.”

Field Museum bird expert Doug Stotz notes that “chronology mismatches” are already occurring.  “We see oaks leafing out two or three weeks earlier than they used to in the Chicago area.”  Climate change means that some native bird species will disappear while others currently common in the South will move north.  Called “invasives” and “exotics”, these birds can act as predators towards native species.  And, there are other consequences.  Kudzu, the fast-growing vine that chokes trees in the Southeastern United States, has been found in Evanston.  Armadillos, which once weren’t seen north of Texas, have been sighted in downstate Illinois.

The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Although upwards of 800 towering wind turbines provide power to countries like Denmark, Britain and other European countries, the United States has engaged in a 10-year debate over constructing Cape Wind, its first offshore wind farm planned for the south side of Cape Cod in Nantucket Sound and recently given the go-ahead by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.America playing catch up to Europe on developing offshore wind farms.

The 130-turbine, 420-megawatt Cape Wind project in Horseshoe Shoal is seen by supporters as an enormous step forward for renewable energy in the United States.  “This project fits with the tradition of sustainable development in the area,” Salazar said.  Blame for the long delay was placed on a poor economic climate, the vague regulatory structure and strong community opposition.  “It is imperative that Cape Wind gets built – we need the momentum,” according to Peter Giller, chief executive of OffshoreMW, which plans to build two 700-megawatt project off the shores of Massachusetts and New Jersey.  At least six offshore wind farms have been proposed for waters off the East Coast and Great Lakes that could provide electricity for hundreds of thousands of customers.  Cape Windwill produce enough renewable electricity to power 420,000 homes.

Even though offshore wind farms cost approximately twice as much as their land-based counterparts, they offer several advantages.  The winds tend to be stronger and more reliable than on land.  Another advantage is that they can be located close to urban populations, which eliminates the need for new overland transmission lines.  If the turbines are constructed far enough from the shore, they have less impact on views – which has been a primary complaint from local opponents.

The city of Evanston, IL – just north of Chicago – recently approved plans to build a wind farm in Lake Michigan which could power 30,000 homes.  Plans call for locating the turbines six to nine miles east of the Northwestern University campus.

Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago a “Temple of Light”

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Amidst the most dire financial crisis in a generation, Chicago has created a magnificent rejoinder to all the bad news.  The Russian writer Dostoevsky once said that “Beauty will save the world.”  Seeing Renzo Piano’s new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago makes you believe that it just might.  First of all, how did they do it?  A $300 million capital project when cities and states are tottering on the edge of bankruptcy?  The answer is that the project is the denouement of a $385 million fundraising campaign — $300 million for the new building and $85 million for the endowment.  All of it came from private patrons in Chicago, some of whom contributed multi-million-dollar sums — a sign of the enormous wealth generated in our city over the last business cycle.  Fortunately, the capital campaign was completed before the downturn in the economy, but the larger museum’s budget will rise from $77 million to $97 million.  This comes at a time when the Art Institute’s endowment has lost a quarter of its value since mid-2008 when it was $641 million, though the museum has been raising an average of around $60 million a year for the expansion.  Meanwhile, in March, the Art Institute issued two series of bonds totaling $140 million to finance construction and other costs while waiting for pledges to come in.

Piano's design includes a facade of Indiana limestone, white steel, and aluminum topped with a "flying carpet" flat roof.

Piano's design includes a facade of Indiana limestone, white steel, and aluminum topped with a "flying carpet" flat roof.

So how good is the building?  For one, it increases the gallery’s space by 35 percent to one million square feet, making the Art Institute the second largest art museum in the U.S. after the Metropolitan Museum in New York (he said proudly as a Chicagoan).  But the really singular thing about the new Modern Wing and what puts it, in my mind, beyond the Met, is that it is a masterpiece of design and urban planning.  Joining Beaux Art with Prairie, the new building has been described as a temple of light.  The key word is temple with all its suggestion of serenity and grace.  Piano (he of the New York Times building and the Whitney Museum) has created a white steel, aluminum and Indiana limestone jewel box topped with a gorgeous flat roof (his flying carpet) and overhanging eaves (in Prairie fashion) which carefully refract light into the galleries below.

The interior is a marvel of the earthbound — wood floors and red wood paneling — and the airborne — vellum ceiling panels and a floating glass staircase that looks back and ahead at the architectural aspirations of our city.  Piano is effusive in his fidelity to transparency and translucence in his work: “architecture must fly: it is made of emotions, tensions, transparency, “and it is not enough for the light to be perfect, you also need calm, serenity, and even a voluptuous quality linked to contemplation of works of art.”

The stunning Nichols Bridgeway, a 620-foot-long pedestrian walkway between the Modern Wing and Millennium Park, gives the impression of floating through treetops and buildings.

The stunning Nichols Bridgeway, a 620-foot-long pedestrian walkway between the Modern Wing and Millennium Park, gives the impression of floating through treetops and buildings.

Then there’s the way the building is situated, offering us the best views yet of the sumptuous Millennium Park gardens and the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion.  The genius of the building is that it makes the city part of its permanent collection, continually juxtaposing its pop art and abstract expressionist canvases against the northeast views of Lake Michigan and the gilded Loop skyline.  The connection is fully realized at the end when the path snakes onto the stunning Nichols Bridgeway, a sloping, 620-foot-long pedestrian walkway that buoys you from the Modern Wing straight into Millennium Park. Lit like the drawbridge to a spaceship, the walkway gives the impression of floating through treetops and buildings.  An unforgettable way to close.  The new Modern Wing of the Art Institute is everything civic architecture should be — inspiring, provoking and, ultimately, a bellwether of better things ahead.