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The Great Lakes in the Face of Climate Change Ashley Carver

he North American Great Lakes cover an area of 244,000km2 and account for 18% of the world’s total freshwater supply, making them the largest freshwater system in the world. The Great Lakes region consists of Canadian and American territory, and residents living in the region make use of what the natural lakes have to offer. People rely on the lakes as a source of drinking water, transportation, and recreation. Aside from human needs, the stability of ecosystems and coastal systems are heavily dependent on the levels of the Great Lakes. The water levels of the Great Lakes hold great connection to communities in the region; individuals, businesses, and institutions all rely on the lakes for various purposes. The Great Lakes have a strong link to the regional economy— they are directly correlated to the shipping and power production industry, while concurrently attracting tourists to the region from all over the world.

The Great Lakes play an important role in dictating regional climate due to their large size and thermal inertia, paired with the low surface roughness and albedo of the lakes. Considering the contribution that the Great Lakes have in determining regional climate, along with their importance to communities and ecosystems, it becomes all the more important to mitigate the impact that climate change has on the vast freshwater source. In past decades, water levels of the Great Lakes have fluctuated by over 2m, with a record high water level being set in 2019-2020 as a result of precipitation levels being persistently higher. It is projected that by 2040-2049, the water levels of the Great Lakes will have risen significantly; Lake Superior by 0.19m, Lake Michigan-Huron by 0.44m, and Lake Erie by 0.28m.

The change in water levels is one of the many impacts that climate change has on the Great Lakes. Other climate-driven disturbances include a decrease in ice cover, warmer water temperatures, and augmented storms. Additional ongoing changes to the Great lakes region include an increase in air temperature, as well as an increase in precipitation levels. The Great Lakes region’s air temperature underwent a 0.7°C (1.26°F) rise between 1895 and 1999. Regarding precipitation levels, the region saw an increase of 10.7cm, equating to approximately 13%, between the years 1955 and 2004. These disturbances are threatening the sustainability of the coastal communities in the Great Lakes region. This data dates back centuries, demonstrating how climate change is not only a modern issue— our world has been victimized by climate change for over a century and the impacts are only getting worse.

Climate change impacts, such as extreme storms, occur unpredictably, making it difficult for communities to effectively respond to these events. Additionally, climate change disturbances come with variability in social responses. Variability essentially refers to the extent in which a climate change related impact occurs, and how long a community or ecosystem experiences changes due to said impact. An example of short-term variability would be an extreme storm that damages homes and infrastructure situated along the coast. Here, the social response would likely surround either the reconstruction or relocation of homes and buildings, or potentially the consideration of building with more resilient materials. Long-term variability pertains to climate change as a whole and how the wicked problem is continuously causing environmental changes to the Great Lakes over decades or even centuries. In this case, the social response is much more unclear as the problem is everlasting and always causing different challenges to the community. 

Variation in social responses are inevitable, so it is critical to adopt new methods in which climate change impacts can be better anticipated. Models are used in effort to make more accurate calculations and predictions regarding future climate change impacts. It is crucial that these models continuously undergo improvements so that communities can better prepare for, adapt to, and recover from climate change ramifications. Communities and ecosystems have been threatened by climate change for centuries, and the problem’s rate is only escalating. Unlike the early stages of climate change, modern society is fortunate to have technological assistance when it comes to formulating mitigation strategies. Climate change mitigation in the Great Lakes region needs to be viewed as a top priority so that the future sustainability of communities and ecosystems can be ensured


1. “Building a research network to better understand climate governance in the Great Lakes,” Ryan Bergstrom and others.

2. “Future rise of the Great Lakes water levels under climate change,” Miraj Kayastha and others.

3. “Future water levels of the Great Lakes under 1.5 °C to 3 °C warmer climates,” Frank Seglenieks and André Temgoua.

4. “Climate change as a driver of change in the Great Lakes St. Lawrence River Basin,” Alana Bartolai and others.

5. “The Great Lakes Region Is Not a ‘Climate Haven’,” Joel Brammeier.


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