Climate change isn’t just hitting polar bears and melting glaciers. Scientists and advocates say it’s affecting the Great Lakes too, even Lake Superior, the lake that’s so big, all the other Great Lakes could fit inside with room to spare. Climate change already is playing out in warmer temperatures and melting ice, and scientists expect more dramatic changes. That could alter the way of life, even on the greatest of the Great Lakes.
In Lake Superior, there’s a thin stretch of green surrounded by water called Madeline Island. For most of the year, you can only get here by kayak or ferry. But when the weather gets cold enough, you can drive on frozen Lake Superior.
"It’s the main road to freedom, it’s transportation at a very most base level," says Lois Carlson, who heads the Madeleine Island Chamber of Commerce.
But the Ice Road is not without its perils, says her co-worker, Suellen Soucek.
"When you’re going across the Ice Road, you don’t wear your seatbelt and you make sure your windows are rolled down," Soucek says.
"So if you go in drink, you can get out quickly. I’m always glad to get off and on the other side."
But the ice road isn’t lasting as long these days. This past winter, Carlson says, it had just opened when there was a thaw and then heavy winds.
"People actually heard what sounded like a sonic boom," she says. "It just exploded out the ice."
A study by a local student, Forrest Howk, in the Journal of Great Lakes Research, found the ice season, when ferries can’t run, has declined on average 15 days a decade since 1975.
A leading climate change researcher in the Great Lakes, Jay Austin, says ice cover on Lake Superior decreased from 23 percent to 12 percent over the past century.
"There are going to be far fewer years when there’s heavy ice cover on the open lake, and far, far more years when we just see no ice," Austin says. He's a professor with the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Large Lakes Observatory.
"Climage change is real," he says. "It’s something that’s not just happening half a world away."
Austin heads out on the research vessel the Blue Heron to measure signs of climate change on Lake Superior. He wants to know why a bright yellow buoy had stopped tracking water temperatures.
"Anytime you put something electronic in the water, you’re asking for trouble," he says. He wants to get the buoy back up and working again right away.
"We care because we want to understand whether or how the climate is changing."
Austin crunched 25 years of data and found the lake surface was warming quicker than anyone thought, about twice as fast as the air.
"It’s really crazy, it’s almost 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 25 years, very surprising," he says.
Water temperatures are up on Lakes Michigan and Huron, too.
"Instead of the water temperature being 60 at the surface it’s 70 at the surface, and that’s actually sort of a big difference, especially if you’re a fish, and you have specific temperatures at which you enjoy existing or you have specific temperatures at which you’re capable of spawning, it does sort of affect lots of systems down the line, this is not just an abstract study of lake temperature in and of itself," Austin says.
A few hours away, to the east, there’s a tiny corner of Lake Superior where some of the changes Austin measures are already becoming apparent and are expected to intensify in decades to come.
Bayfield is a town of 486 people. This is where the famous Ice Road to Madeline Island begins. Bayfield is nearly as far north as you can go in Wisconsin. It’s on a steep hill, so pretty much everywhere you go, you see Lake Superior.
Bayfield Mayor Larry MacDonald and his wife are enjoying the view while grilling a pizza.
"We don’t really suffer through the winter, we like it, we go through it, it’s just a way of life," MacDonald says.
He knows this way of life and the cold-weather traditions so deeply rooted in the culture might be changing.
"So I think right now the ice fishing is OK, but they’re going to have to realize that unless they can walk on water in 50 years, they won’t be ice fishing," he says.
What are they going to do?
"Some of those guys will go nuts. They’ll have to go on the north side of the lake up into Canada to get what we used to have here."
This area could have summers like central Indiana by the end of the century, according to a new study by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and National Resources Defense Council. It predicts temperatures here could rise up to 12 degrees on average year-round, which means warmer winters as well.
"To a certain degree, people have liked have milder winters, but if you start forecasting that out over a long period of time, we won’t have winters anymore," MacDonald says.
Other Bayfield leaders are concerned too.
"When you think about walking out in the Northwoods and being in the evergreens and cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, those things may not be available to our grandchildren," says Bob Krumenaker, the park superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He’s one of the leading voices on climate change in the national parks.
He takes me on a boat tour of the Apostles, 22 islands known for lighthouses and sand caves. The islands slide past each other like ribbons of green against the blue waters of Lake Superior.
"National parks end up being, even though it wasn’t what we thought we were here for, the terrific canaries in the mine," Krumenaker says.
Most climate change models predict that lake levels will drop several inches or more by the end of the century. Krumenaker says that could make it difficult to operate a boat in spots, could concentrate pollution in the water, and even change the size and location of the islands themselves.
He can't say whether the recent low levels are due to climate change. But he points to a dock they had to retrofit as a sign of what may come.
"Small boats were at risk of getting caught underneath the dock, and there were big bolts and rusty rebar and other things that we didn’t even know were there because they’d always been covered up by the lake," he says.
Krumenaker says he had no idea climate change was hitting the Great Lakes until 2006, when he attended a conference.
"It was a very eye-opening moment in ways I can’t think of any other time in my career where I’ve says, Oh my God, I really need to get involved in this."
He and his staff took action, working to educate the public. They know climate change is global, but they say they want to do what they can to not make it worse. They’re switching to fuel-efficient vehicles, promoting bicycling, and experimenting with solar generators to reduce their carbon footprint.
"We’re telling the story and we’re trying not to hit people over the head to say, Oh my God, the news is horrible, although it is," Krumenaker says. "But say this is important, it’s about a place you care about and you can do something about it."
Not everyone is convinced. Some of the people Krumenaker and the mayor are trying to reach are the old-timers who frequent the Northern Edge. It’s a bar and restaurant decorated with bears carved out of logs, and a stuffed fuzzy bear holding a welcome sign, right next to an extreme hunting video game.
People know to keep the big round table in the corner free each morning. That’s because at 9:30 on the dot, the coffee club arrives.
They offer me coffee right away.
"Julian, you lived in Bayfield, 94 years now?" one of the men asks another man.
"95," Julian Nelson replies. He's a retired commercial fisherman and ferry captain. He remembers wooden sidewalks.
"The lake is the boss. It tells you what you can do and what you can’t do, when you can do it, and if you can do it," Nelson says.
"It’s just lovely, you can’t find a nicer lake to be by, especially with all these islands out here, and the fishing is great, even if you just go for a boat ride, it’s lovely," says Gus Jordan.
"Don’t say the fishing’s good here, there will be everyone from Illinois," says Julian's son, Bob Nelson, to great laughter around the table.
I ask what they think about climate change.
"There are differing views at this table, but I’m one that thinks global climate change is occurring, and that it’s a very serious threat," says Bill Bussey, who the men like to introduce as Bayfield’s best and only attorney.
Al Weborg shakes his head.
"I think it’s a bunch of BS, climate change," he says. "Yeah, it works in cycles, fishing works in cycles, farming works in cycles, and we're in a cycle, that's all."
Julian Nelson chimes in: "I'm inclined to agree with you, Bill."
The men sit up and took notice. Nelson was mayor during the debate over the Apostle Islands becoming a national lakeshore. He supported that, despite opposition. He figured, otherwise, individuals would own entire islands someday. He lost the next election, but today, a bay in the lake is named after him.
"For all of you, I will say that there are very credible reports on climate change written by credible people. They’re there for you to read," Nelson says. "This climate change is a very slow creeping disease, and it is occurring."
"You have two sides to it, not just one," Weborg says.
While the debate continues over climate change, some people here are already living with the impact.
Like Craig Hoopman, a commercial fisherman, and his grandfather, Morris Boutin, who's been a commercial fisherman here for about 75 years.
Grandfather and grandson sit side by side in a corner of the family shop, Bay Fisheries. Hoopman’s mom works behind a counter full of smoked fish and fresh fillets.
"I’ve got license number four, the first one ever issued in the state of Wisconsin," Boutin says.
Do you still fish?
"No, once in a while, very seldom. He always tells me, go on the boat, I’ll forget how. I’ll never forget how. (Laughs.)"
The family started fishing here in the 1850s. Craig Hoopman’s the fourth generation. He goes after coldwater fish like whitefish, which he says are going deeper in response to warming water.
"It’s forcing us just to run farther, we’re going out farther into the lake to find colder water," Hoopman says. "In August and September, we’re running 30 miles, where right now we’re running 10 miles.You have to go where the fish are, it’s not where you want to go, it’s where they are."
It’s not just fish and fishermen reacting to the changes. Ojibwe elders are seeing an alarming trend that’s affecting an ancient Native tradition of harvesting wild rice.
Damon Panek is a park ranger and cultural educator who is Ojibwe. He says big, sudden storms are toppling wild rice and drowning it, and scientists predict we’ll be seeing a lot more of these storms in years to come.
In 2007, Panek says, for the first time in anyone’s memory, there was no wild rice harvest.
"It’s not about losing the plant as a physical thing, it’s losing that plant as a spiritual thing as well. Losing that, you also lose the ceremonies that go with it, you lose the language that goes with it, you lose a lot more, so in a way, you lose a culture attached to that plant," he says.
Birch trees, so iconic up here, are used to make baskets, canoes, and dwellings. Studies predict birches and maples won’t tolerate the heat, and they’ll be replaced by more southern trees like oaks and hickories.
"People are actually starting to think about alternatives to bark. It’s starting to enter their consciousness of preparation, I think," Panek says.
While those near Lake Superior are already dealing with climate change, it’s heading to the rest of the Great Lakes too. Environmental advocates like Andy Buchsbaum, who heads the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office, say it’s too late to stop it. But he says people can prevent it from getting worse by curbing fossil fuel emissions.
"Once you begin talking about changing basic temperature, air temperature, water temperature, weather patterns, once that happens, you can’t reverse that quickly, it takes a long time," Buchsbaum says. "We’re now in the position where we're trying to adapt."
Green roofs and restored wetlands can dampen the effects of extreme storms and help prepare for changing lake levels.
Experts think if people help boost the resiliency of the Great Lakes now, it will help the lakes heal themselves in the future.
Resources on climate change:
Click below to hear more about adapting to climate change with Andy Buchsbaum. He heads the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office.