Great Lakes warm up, may hit new highs

Global Warming: News and Research

Great Lakes warm up, may hit new highs

Postby Wilberforce » Sun Jul 25, 2010 10:00 am


Great Lakes warm up, may hit new highs
Beachgoers happy, but charters, restaurants, marine life take hit
Jim Lynch / The Detroit News
Last Updated: July 23. 2010 6:02PM

Eugene Lepeak is prepping for the arrival next week of his son's family -- including a trio of grandchildren -- at his home on the southern shore of Lake Superior. The annual visit to Grand Marais always includes outdoor activities for the youngsters like boating and swimming.

Lake Superior, however, has a surprise in store for the family this year. The lake's normally cool waters are an estimated 10 to 15 degrees warmer than usual and well on their way to record-breaking levels.

"Usually, you can't stay in very long," said Lepeak's daughter-in-law, Linda, who brings the clan west from Connecticut in late July each summer. "Most of our swims last 15 to 20 minutes at the most."

Each of the Great Lakes is registering temperatures that are well above normal for this time of year, the result of a shortened winter season and a hot spring. And those warmer waters are impacting the region in a variety of ways -- from throwing off the spawning of native fish species to hurting some businesses that make a living off the waters. In other instances, the temperatures are seen as a welcome change.

It all depends on where you are.

"All of the lakes are either at or approaching their normal temperatures for late August," said Jay Austin, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota's Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth, Minn. "They're already at what we would have expected to be their peak temperatures for the summer, and we have several more weeks of warming to go."

His observations come from 30 years of data collected from buoys throughout the Great Lakes. Data from satellites measuring surface temperatures also indicate a record-breaking summer for the waters.

Austin said this year's higher readings are the result of a winter season that saw little ice cover on the lakes coupled with recent trends in warming temperatures throughout the region.

Bill Deedler, a historian and forecaster with the National Weather Service, wouldn't go so far as saying the changes are the result of global warming. But conditions hitting the lake this year are combining for unusual effects.

"We have seen more extremes in our weather in the last 10 years -- snowier winters and hotter summers -- because of the overall patterns in the hemisphere," Deedler said.

He declined, however, to say whether those patterns are evidence of global warming trends espoused by many researchers.

"This isn't out of the ordinary, but it can be seen as an anomaly," he said.
Hot water no good for fish

Among the Great Lakes, Superior is the most sensitive to temperature changes, according to meteorologists. If Ralph Wilcox needed reminding, he's getting it this summer.

His family runs the Wilcox Fish House & Restaurant in Brimley, and Wilcox is out on the lake many mornings during the week catching fish for both his business and others in cities like Chicago and New York.

Warmer waters are making the whitefish much harder to come by. Usually, Wilcox catches them closer to shore, but those fishing grounds are now warmer than usual.

"It chases them out deeper," the 68-year-old said. "They get out into the water column and you can't catch them. They usually don't do that until mid-August or so.

"This is the first time in a lot of years that we've had to buy fish for our restaurant."

Farther west along the shore of Lake Superior -- almost to the end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula -- Nancy Auer is encountering temperature-related troubles in her efforts to restore lake sturgeon in the Ontonagon River. For the past three years, researchers at Michigan Tech have been introducing young sturgeon into the river, which feeds into Lake Superior.

"We've just had a heck of a time this year (keeping the new sturgeon alive) because of the hot waters," said Auer, a biology professor at the university.

It's unclear how the higher water temperatures will affect Lake Superior's fish populations in the long run, but few are predicting it will be a good thing. Species like the coaster brook trout, herring and whitefish that spawn in the fall could see their routines delayed for weeks or months. That could mean drastic changes for those who make a living off the lake.

"Right now it's too soon to know what will happen," said Tom Gorenflo, tribal fisheries manager for the Chippewa-Ottawa Resource Authority based in Sault Ste. Marie. "But if it continues to warm like this, we may see some changes in the fish ecology."
Businesses see mixed results

Cathy and Adam Pyle offer just about anything locals and tourists need to enjoy the beaches of South Haven and the waters of Lake Michigan. Pyle's Porthole on Dunkley Avenue carries everything from fishing supplies to food and drink to sunscreen.

"This is our third year in business and it's the best we've had by far," Cathy Pyle said. "We've seen an increase in the number of recreational boaters coming in from the fact that the water is warmer and more swimmable."

Up the coast, charter boat owner Michael Nelson has had to adapt his approach this summer for catching chinook and king salmon. He's going deeper to get the fish that are retreating from the warmer surface temperatures. But it hasn't hurt the haul this year.

In southeastern Michigan, however, some businesses aren't being helped by changes in the lake temperatures. Dan Chimelak, co-owner of the Lakeside Fishing Shop in St. Clair Shores, said warmer waters are keeping fish from feeding during the daytime, meaning fewer bites for anglers on Lake St. Clair.

"It makes the fish lethargic and they stop feeding during the day," he said.Chimelak said business is down 20 percent from last year.
Algae in abundance

In recent years, the Great Lakes haven't needed any help producing the thick blooms of green algae that cover miles of surface water. But the temperatures in play this summer may be spurring growth of the unwanted muck.

Algae blooms arrived earlier than normal this year along Lake Erie and in larger masses than usual. David Baker, a professor at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, has been studying algae growth in the lake for years.

"With everything else being equal, I'm sure the warmer temperatures have helped the algae grow more quickly this year," Baker said.

Baker isn't the only researcher studying the waters this summer. Should the temperature trends from this summer continue into the late fall, it could impact lake levels in 2011.

"A mild December followed by a frigid cold January could lead to a high evaporation rate early next year," said Keith Kompoltowicz, a meteorologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "That takes water directly from the lake surfaces and deposits it in other areas in the form of precipitation... leading to lower lake levels." (313) 222-2034


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