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Report: Great Lakes warming faster than rest of U.S.

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
People jog along the shore of Lake Michigan Wednesday morning, June 13, 2018, in downtown Chicago.

The Great Lakes region is getting warmer faster than the rest of America, resulting in extreme weather patterns, rising lake levels, flooding and the influx of invasive species, according to a study released Thursday.

The annual mean air temperature in the region, which includes portions of the U.S. Midwest, Northeast and southern Canada, rose 1.6 degrees from 1901-60 and 1985-2016, according to the report commissioned by the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

The mean temperature for the remainder of the United States increased 1.2 degrees during the same period, according to "An Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Lakes." The study, produced by 18 scientists mostly from Midwestern universities and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was discussed in an hour-long morning conference call.

The region is expected to continue to warm for the rest of the century, but experts said it would depend on the amount of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide pumped into the air. 

While the Trump administration is skeptical about climate change and its effects, study researchers and advocates called on cities, states around the Great Lakes and Congress to help foster solutions.

Nearly 34 million people depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water, jobs, and recreation, advocates say, including 8 percent of the U.S. population and 32 percent of Canada’s.  

"Let's be clear: Climate change is a worldwide problem, but it has very real impacts at the local level here in the Great Lakes and that affects all the communities that depend on the lakes," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "It means our primary source of clean, safe drinking water for swimming, fishing, boating, is impaired."

With the world's largest source of fresh drinking water, the effects on the Great Lakes include:

* Warmer temperatures have led to more rain and snow with the Great Lakes region experiencing a 10 percent increase in precipitation from 1901 to 2015, compared with 4 percent nationwide. Experts expect wetter winters and springs.

* By century's end, it's predicted that the region will experience 30 to 60 additional days each year with 17 to 40 "extremely warm days" in the Great Lakes Basin.

* Climate change "will likely threaten drinking water quality" with stress on water infrastructure, sewer overflows and "waterborne pathogens seeping into streams, rivers and Lake Michigan," according to the report.

There will also be economic impacts to climate change by putting "significant financial stress" on the agricultural industry and increase the cost of commerce and shipping on the Great Lakes, said Bradley Cardinale of the University of Michigan Cooperative that worked on the study.

Cardinale said there have been more beach closures on the Great Lakes in recent years because of the "detection of high levels of human pathogens."

"Climate change is going to force Great Lakes states to make costly upgrades to their infrastructure systems," he said, adding that it would also "increase public health risks."

Policymakers should pay closer attention to climate change and its effects on the Great Lakes, Learner said. While the Trump administration has tried to cut the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, it won't happen, he said.

"His budget proposal in this regard is dead on arrival in Congress," Learner said.

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