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Commentary on Great Lakes science by AWRI researchers is published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research

Commentary on Great Lakes science by AWRI researchers is published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research

Bopi Biddanda and Tony Weinke of AWRI, working with collaborator Jim Cotner of the University of Minnesota, published a commentary on the state of Great Lakes and how good science can help protect them sustainably in these times of increasing anthropogenic and climate change impacts. This peer-reviewed commentary appears in the October issue of the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

The Laurentian Great Lakes of North America cover ~250,000 km2 and contain about one fifth of all the liquid freshwater water on the surface of our planet constituting a vitally important natural resource. This largest body of freshwater on Earth supports 179 different species of fish and commercial harvests over $300 million. Furthermore, the Great Lakes basin is home to over 40 million residents – providing drinking water, and attracting millions of tourists each year. The economies of the Great Lakes states surrounding the lakes represent the world’s fourth largest global economy. Clearly, this is a resource of incalculable ecological and economic value to humanity at large. However, today, the Great Lake’s vast freshwater resources are facing a myriad of anthropogenic and climate-driven stresses – even as support for their study, protection, and restoration is dwindling. It is critical at this time that the Great Lakes community of scientists, managers and policy makers implement a science plan that addresses critical issues by setting up programs specific to understanding, addressing and resolving Great Lakes science and management issues, and allocation of resources to reflect the size, value and vulnerability of the Great Lakes system.

Climate change is amplifying the hydrologic cycle in ways that will increase the pressure on managers to make correct decisions. At the same time, human population growth, coupled with increased food demands and increased deleterious effects of both of these factors on aquatic systems have made the “management sweet spot” much harder to hit than it was 50-100 years ago, when populations were much smaller, agricultural demands were less and climate change had not manifested itself as clearly as it is today. Already, anthropogenic climate change is disproportionately warming lakes – both great and small – across the globe, and measurably impacting the productivity of lakes – with potentially destabilizing effects on both water and food security. Current and future generations of scientists and policy makers have great need for great science for the sustainable management of Earth’s freshwater resources.

Today, the Great Lakes ecosystem is experiencing marked changes driven by multiple stressors that are on the path to loss of the many essential ecosystem services it provides. It is our intent in this essay to rally support for them, rally support for developing our scientific understanding and protecting them despite enormous political and economic pressure to let them languish. We call for implementing a science plan that addresses critical Great Lakes issues, including upgrading infrastructure (e.g. field stations and observing networks) and resolving current and emerging issues (e.g. harmful algal blooms, recurring bottom water hypoxia, invasive species, changing water levels and nutrient cycles) by strengthening NSF, NOAA, NASA and EPA support of basic and applied science in the Great Lakes.

Over 150 years ago, the American naturalist-philosopher Henry David Thoreau captured the essence of lakes as “Earth’s eyes” because they intimately reflect the deep and tangible links between the landscape and humanity. This year is the bicentennial birth year of Thoreau, and it is time we prioritized the protection of the “Earth’s largest eye”.       

Image caption: North America’s Laurentian Great Lakes as seen from space, showing visible coastal phytoplankton blooms in lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario (Credit: NASA). The World’s largest freshwater resource is under intense anthropogenic stress from forces such as climate change, invasive species, pollution, and eutrophication as well as invasive mussel-mediated oligotrophication – and there is urgent need for bold commitments to its understanding, protection and conservation. The non-linear and non-additive interaction of climate and anthropogenic stressors on biotic integrity of the Great Lakes system makes their management ever more challenging as both the scale and intensity of stressor interactions are escalating due to the combination of rapidly changing climate and increasing human activity.

Cotner, J., Weinke, A., and Biddanda, B. (2017).  Great Lakes:  Science can keep them great.  Journal of Great Lakes Research. 43: 916-919. 

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