Great Lakes 'heat waves' poised to impact metro Detroit due to climate change

Recent study compares rising lake temps around the globe
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-14 07:02:13-04

BROWNSTOWN TWP, Mich. (WXYZ) — Lake Erie was particularly of note in a recent climate-related study from Wales. A team of scientists used satellite data to compare rising water temperatures in lakes around the globe, and confirmed that when extreme warming occurs, much can happen beneath the water's surface.

The study's co-author Iestyn Woolway spoke to us with via Zoom from Wales, where he's an independent research fellow at the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University.

“Some of the lakes that we find that are warming the most are those typically situated at higher latitudes, so this would be the lakes in North America, Scandinavia, Lake Baikal in Siberia for example," Woolway said.

Some of the lakes he and his team studied included the Great Lakes.

Related: Climate change warming Lake Michigan's deep water could have major impact on ecosystem, study finds

"Lake Erie is particularly of interest to us because of the increased occurrence of Algal blooms in that lake," Woolway said about his findings in our region.

Algae blooms have already marred Lake Erie, from metro Detroit to the shores of Toledo; it's one of the things made worse by rising water temperatures, including what's called 'lake heat waves.'

Lake Erie poised to have an even bigger algae bloom problem as a result of climate change.

“The mean temperature of the Great Lakes is increasing," Woolway said, noting observations from the 1980s until now. "And the occurrence of what we refer to as extreme temperatures, so lake heat waves, are becoming more prominent, more intense, and occurring for a longer period of time," he said.

Lake heat waves in the Great Lakes occur when the top ten percent of historic water temperatures are exceeded for five days or more.

“Lakes are very sensitive to atmospheric changes," Woolway said. "They’re sensitive to what happens in the climate. And they mirror the long-term changes in air temperatures. So if air temperatures continue to rise, and they are projected to do so due to green house gas emissions, then lake temperatures will follow suit.” 

Woolway and his colleagues also confirmed that the problem is largely anthropogenic, or human-caused; 94%.

Related: Reduced fish abundance possible due to climate change warming deep waters in Lake Michigan

Based on their findings, in a worst-case scenario, lake heat waves could be up to 25 times more likely in the future if harmful emissions aren't curbed.

“These heatwaves will become progressively worse and in some cases we will actually transition into what we call a permanent heatwave state," Woolway explained.

And that means surges of algae blooms so intense, by century's end Woolway said some lake beaches won't be as enjoyable.

If we continue to cut carbon emissions, Woolway said lake heat waves won't necessarily go away.

“Lake heatwaves will continue to occur, they will continue to be felt by the aquatic ecosystems, but they will not get progressively worse," he said.

Lisa Wozniak heads up the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and said as the effects of a warming climate become more visible in our waterways, addressing crumbling infrastructure is vital.

We met her in Ypsilanti at the Peninsular Paper Dam, which no longer generates power and is wreaking havoc on the Huron River's ecosystem, she said.

“When you have impoundments like you have right there, sediment can be really toxic," Wozniak told Action News, pointing at the more than century-old dam.

The Peninsular Dam was first built in 1867 to generate power for paper manufacturing. It's now slated to come down.

“Scientists tell us that rivers thrive when they’re not damed up," she said. "And this particular river, the Huron River has hundreds of dams up and down it and most people don’t know that.”

The City of Ypsilanti is in charge of the dam's removal, which city council voted in favor of in 2019. But there's still no firm date for it's removal.

It will need to be removed in segments, Wozniak explained, and once it is finally taken down, the river's ecosystem will benefit.

“I think we’ll see a vibrant fishery. I think people who fish this will be so happy because they’ll be able to see [fish] that they haven't fished with their kids and grand-kids in years.” 

Lisa Wozniak with the MI League of Conservation Voters speaks with Action News Reporter Jenn Schanz along the Huron River.

And while the Peninsular Dam is far smaller than the two dams which failed in mid-Michigan in 2020, Wozniak said it served as a cautionary tale for what can happen when water infrastructure is not properly maintained and invested in.

“Should this dam fail, we have some pretty big impacts downstream," she said.

She recently joined with other environmental activists to weigh in on Gov. Whitmer's MI Healthy Climate Plan.

“So this plan right now slates Michigan to be carbon neutral by 2050. And we're urging it to be strengthened so that we're actually achieving 100 percent clean energy by 2035."

The final draft is expected to be released later this month around Earth Day.

Wozniak said particularly in light of the extreme weather events metro Detroit has seen in recent years, more people are starting to care about the health of our waterways and everything they're connected to.

“More and more people understand that this is not an esoteric issue.”