US: A team of researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin – Madison produced the most comprehensive map to date of the Great Lakes’ stressors, and also the first map to explicitly account for all major types of stressors on the lakes in a quantitative way.
These maps open the discussion on global restoration. By making calculated decisions based on extensive data, the world’s leading environmental issues can be approached with realistic solutions that can save time and money.
The Great Lakes – the largest surface freshwater system in the world, holds nearly 20 percent of the earth’s freshwater. Yet with increasing degradation, this highly important water source continues to battle an influx of invasive species, contamination from pollutants and the widespread loss of coastal wetlands.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, over 35 million people live in the Great Lakes basin, an area that includes Ontario and Quebec, and eight US states spanning from Minnesota to New York. Aside from the obvious provision of drinking water, the Great Lakes provide a range of services, from agricultural to shipping and transportation to recreation.
Through a press statement, team leader and University of Michigan professor, David Allen, explained that the map represents the combined influence of 34 stressors on each of the five Great Lakes and ranks the importance of each stressor in relation to how it affects the lake itself. The team, led by Allan and Sigrid Smith of the University of Michigan, Peter McIntyre of UW-Madison, and Ben Halpern of the University of California – Santa Barbara, surveyed over 150 researchers and natural resource managers, mapping data and comparing the ranking of stressors to assess the health of the lakes.
“Our goal was to consolidate all the best data available on threats to the Great Lakes,” said Peter McIntyre. “No previous study has dealt with multiple stressors in a spatially-explicit way, or merged them using a consensus of expert opinion about their ecological impacts.”
According to McIntyre, the maps offer a visual depiction of the various levels of stress each lake faces. The study revealed that Lake Ontario has the highest level of stress, whereas Lake Superior has the lowest. Major stressors vary greatly across specific locations and lakes, but overwhelmingly, the threat of invasive species, decreased ice cover on the lakes in winter months due to climate change, and increased levels of phosphorus due to agricultural runoff have most negatively affected Great Lakes habitats.
“We found that the places where people are using the lakes for fishing, swimming, boating, and bird-watching generally experience higher-than-expected threat levels. In addition, sites currently targeted for restoration efforts are almost entirely in the high-stress areas,” McIntyre said.
As of November 15th, 2012, the Environmental Project Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have funded over 500 grants, totaling 268 million dollars, and invested over 118 million dollars in Great Lakes Legacy Act projects.
The dedication to cleaning up the Great Lakes was solidified with an international agreement called The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement signed in 1972. The agreement, signed by Canada and the United States commits both countries to working together to protect the lakes. According to Environment Canada, the EPA and several other Great Lakes partners evaluate lake conditions as well as establish restoration goals.