Renowned scientist visits St. Lawrence River, warns that climate change is driving extreme water levels

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CLAYTON, N.Y. (WWTI) — To many who live along, or visit the Great Lakes water system, they are familiar with constantly changing water levels. However, recent environmental events may draw a new level of concern.

The St. Lawrence River community of Clayton was visited on September 9 by University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability Associate Professor Dr. Andrew Gronewold. Dr. Gronewold is known for researching water levels on some of the worlds largest freshwater systems. He visited the North Country to lead a discussion on findings from his research.

Across the Great Lakes, water levels are constantly changing. In one year, each lake can fluctuate one to two feet due to changes in precipitation and evaporation. It typically starts with higher levels in the spring due to snow melt and ends with lower levels in the fall following high summer temperatures.

But Dr. Gronewold’s conversation mainly focuses on conditions in the past two decade with weather events many can recall. This starting in the 1990s with abnormal droughts.

“In the late 1990s, the water levels across most of the Great Lakes plummeted, and they not just plummeted, but they stayed low for about 15 years,” he shared. “And when I say they stayed low, what I mean is Lake Superior and Lake Michigan were consistently below average and they didn’t change.”

From there, Dr. Gronewold said, “a narrative developed.” This narrative being focused on extreme highs and lows on the Great Lakes. He then included a concept now widely discussed across the world: Climate change.

Fast forward to 2014, the entire Great Lakes system surged to record-breaking levels. These were levels were ones that had not been recorded since the 1860s. Then he focused on 2017 and 2019, where major flooding events destroyed communities and ecosystems along the system and in the North Country.

“We go from these record lows, a narrative of a future with drought and aridity and concerned about low levels. And within five years, we’re talking about extreme highs to the point where lake Ontario sets to all time record. In a period of just a few years in 2017 and 2019,” he stated.

But why does this cause concern? Dr. Gronewold warned that climate change is at play and essentially messing up natures “Tug-of-war” between evaporation and precipitation. 

Imagine a tug of war between two teams and they’re pulling back and forth,” Dr. Gronewold explained. “And those two teams are getting stronger and stronger over time, just like precipitation and evaporation. The line in the middle may stay stable for a while. But if either one of those teams what’s up at any given moment, what happens to the middle? It swings to one side or the other.”

Discussing the future, the award-winning scientist said that the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River can expect to see more of these extreme events. Which will ultimately impact shoreline communities and ecosystems.

“What we think is going to happen, is there is going to be changes in the way water levels oscillate between their extremes. And at some point, somebody may ask the question, ‘how much water can you divert out of the Great Lakes without disrupting people’s lives and without disrupting the ecosystem?’ That’s a game changer, a major curve ball in the narrative we’re having about long-term water levels,” Dr. Gronewold concluded.

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