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Mother Nature Needs a Hand Saving the Great Lakes

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Over the millennia, nature took its time to craft the Great Lakes. A melting glacier sculpted the five large basins that would eventually become the world's largest fresh water reserve.

But over the past decade and half it seems we are on the verge of screwing it all up.

North America's Great Lakes are for fun and frolic while also supporting a vast industrial complex that is a main engine of growth for the U.S. and Canada, the world's biggest trading partnership. (You can read a more in-depth analysis of this story here.)

But the lake waters are warming and receding -- lakes Huron and Michigan hit record lows this year. Besides overuse and neglect, scientists and academics who study the lakes believe climate change is irrevocably altering this magnificent resource and that we need to learn to adapt to its changing nature.

The Great Lakes, including the once crisp Lake Superior, have been buffeted by shorter winters, with less ice cover, and warmer summers. As a result, evaporation rates are soaring. Shipping companies have been forced to dramatically lighten loads while cottage and hotel owners are scrambling to preserve beaches.

Water levels have been below average for more than 14 years, a record and an indicator for some that the falling levels can't be explained away as just part of the normal cyclical fluctuations.

"We have not seen anything like this in our recorded history," Frank Quinn, an emeritus hydrologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, earlier this year.

Thanks to a snowy winter this year and a rainy spring, water levels began to recover in July and August, but Huron and Michigan were still about 18 inches below its average in July.

If Mother Nature isn't cooperating, can anything else be done? In April the International Joint Commission, the Canada-U.S. body that oversees the Great Lakes, issued a report recommending that governments build structures in the St. Clair River, a major artery, to slow the water coming out of the Michigan and Huron lakes. This will probably help to a certain degree.

The big shipping companies, meanwhile, are pushing for more dredging of harbours and they have a good case that governments involved are not spending the money needed to support the $34-billion shipping industry.

But here is the crux of the issue: will digging deeper harbours and manipulating water levels be enough to counter the increasingly stingy skies that is really the reason behind the dramatic fall in water levels?

The experts say that in order to restore this great bath tub, the region needs nature to consistently turn on the rain taps for over a period of years. Cooler weather is also paramount. But that's not something we can count on as global warming continues to wreak havoc with our climate.

Essentially people that use the lakes -- from the cottage owners to the shippers -- need to adapt to the ever-changing environs of the Great Lakes and be careful of what, when and where they build.

Local governments need to work at the grassroots level to ensure their precious shores are being developed in the most sustainable ways. Shipping companies may need new technology and have to learn to live with lighter loads, which could cost consumers more for basic goods.

"Some of the discussions around the region are 'how do we put in more control structures to control the lake levels,'" said Don Scavia, Director of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, at the University of Michigan, told CopyCarbon. "I'm not convinced that's the solution. I think we need to learn to adapt to the variations."

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