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Map highlights Great Lakes restoration challenges

US: An international research consortium has developed innovative new maps of both environmental threats and benefits to help guide cost-effective approaches to environmental remediation of the world”s largest fresh water resource.

A group led by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports on an expansive and detailed effort to map and cross-compare environmental stresses and the ecological services provided by the five lakes, which together encompass more than 20 per cent of the world”s fresh surface water.

“This study provides a benchmark for understanding restoration in the Great Lakes,” said Peter McIntyre, an assistant professor at UW-Madison and one of the report”s senior authors. “Until now, restoration has usually been dominated by a piecemeal approach, but our team”s synthesis of all major classes of environmental problems provides a more comprehensive perspective.”

The Great Lakes basin, home to more than 30 million people, provides drinking water and recreation for millions of people in both the United States and Canada. In addition, the lakes support a host of environmental services ranging from fishing to boating, beach combing to birding, with economic values estimated in the tens of billions of dollars annually.

The lakes are under severe environmental stress from decades of urban, industrial and agricultural runoff pollution, as well as a continuing onslaught of invasive species, climate change and other problems.

“Despite clear societal dependence on the Great Lakes, their condition continues to be degraded by numerous environmental stressors likely to have adverse impacts on species and ecosystems,” says David Allan, lead author of the report and an aquatics professor at the University of Michigan”s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

In addition to identifying environmental problems, the team led by Allan, McIntyre and Sigrid Smith, also of the University of Michigan, mapped where in the Great Lakes key environmental services – such as recreational fishing, marinas, beach use and bird watching – reside. The resulting comparative analysis shows a startling overlap of threats in areas where the services are the highest.

“We looked for a nexus between our threat maps and service maps,” says McIntyre, “and were shocked to see that most of the high service sites are also on the high end of the threat spectrum.”

The new analysis and the resulting maps of Great Lakes environmental stresses and services set the stage for a new generation of restoration efforts, the study authors write in the report. The study highlights, for example, the potential to broaden the current portfolio of restoration projects by identifying locations of high cumulative stress not currently targeted for restoration. In addition, the maps detail areas of low stress that could be protected by mitigating just one or a few problems.

Source: EurekAlert