Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Researchers, policymakers and advocates imagine possible futures for Great Lakes

More than 75 researchers, policymakers and advocates gathered at U-M on Wednesday to imagine possible futures for the Great Lakes and to begin charting a course to protect and restore them.


The daylong workshop at Palmer Commons marked the first meeting of the Great Lakes Futures Project, a partnership of 21 U.S. and Canadian research institutions. Formed in October 2012, the group will propose a set of research and policy priorities to share with government officials and others in both countries.

"We have a history in the Great Lakes region of reacting to the issue of the day and spending money to fix past mistakes," said Gail Krantzberg of McMaster University, one of the four co-leaders of the Great Lakes Futures Project.

"With this project, we have an opportunity to get scientists and academics and government folks together on the same page to understand collectively what ought to be done in the long term. And I think that's really exciting and unique."

At the meeting, teams of graduate students from Canadian and U.S. universities presented white papers on eight driving forces that have shaped the Great Lakes region in the past and that will shape it over the next 50 years: climate change, energy, economics, water quantity, biological and chemical contaminants, invasive species, demographics and societal values, and governance and geopolitics.

More than 35 million people — roughly 30 percent of the Canadian and 10 percent of the U.S. populations — live in the Great Lakes region. The basin's economic output is more than $4 trillion, and its population is expected to grow by 20 million people over the next 20 years.

In 2009, the Obama administration announced the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the largest single source of funding ever focused on the Great Lakes. The GLRI spent an unprecedented $1 billion on Great Lakes restoration projects in its first three years.

"With the tremendous restoration effort in place focused on reversing Great Lakes damage in the here and now, we are stepping back and looking 50 years into the future to see if we are heading in the right direction for the long haul," said U-M aquatic ecologist Donald Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute and one of the four Great Lakes Futures Project leaders.

"What do we want the future to look like? Are the current policies, practices and programs moving us toward that future? And if not, what do we need to do to change that?" said Scavia, Graham Family Professor of Environmental Sustainability, professor of natural resources and environment, civil and environmental engineering, and special counsel to U-M president on sustainability.

The student team that tackled the climate change topic said the Great Lakes region is expected to warm significantly in coming decades, with increased winter precipitation and greater variability in the timing and intensity of summer rainstorms. Environmental implications of those changes could include more frequent harmful algal blooms and "dead zones" in the lakes, more waterborne illnesses caused by pathogens such as E. coli bacteria, loss of biodiversity, a more favorable setting for invasive species, and increased shoreline erosion.

"There's a lot of uncertainty, but we can say that climate change is likely to be one of the most important factors that will shape the future conditions of the Great Lakes," said U-M's Lingli He, a doctoral student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the team that wrote the climate change white paper.

The student teams were mentored by prominent university researchers from both countries. The U-M mentors were Sara Gosman of the Law School (geopolitics and governance), Thomas Lyon of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment (energy), Tom Nalepa of the Graham Sustainability Institute (invasive species), David Allan of SNRE (biological and chemical contaminants), Scavia of the Graham Sustainability Institute (climate change) and Jonathan Bulkley of SNRE (water quantity).

After the white papers were presented Wednesday morning, workshop participants broke into smaller groups to frame four scenarios for the future of the Great Lakes. Each scenario used a different combination of environmental conditions and governance for the region.

In the coming months, a new group of students will be supported to flesh out the details of those futures and evaluate the policy changes needed to move toward the desired scenario or to avoid the undesirable ones.

The Great Lakes Futures Project's policy and research recommendations are expected to be completed later this year.