NCDC Participates in the Bilateral Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Image of Lake Michagan shoreline erosion at Red Lantern Restaurant

Shoreline erosion - Red Lantern Restaurant, Lake Michigan, Indiana
National Park Service, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, R. Royce
Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The value of the Great Lakes extends well beyond their economic importance in terms of commercial shipping via those waterways. Collectively, the Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—are a treasured source for drinking water, recreation, fisheries, manufacturing, forestry, agriculture, mining, energy, and tourism; individually, their shores are home to major metropolitan cities and an abundance of parks for residents and visitors. Shared with Canada, the lakes make up the largest surface freshwater system on the Earth, holding 84% of North America's surface fresh water, and span more than 750 miles from west to east. On the U.S. side, the lakes touch eight states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. In Canada, the province of Ontario shares a shore with Huron, Erie, Superior, and Ontario.

Years ago, the United States and Canada recognized the need to protect these waters by establishing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), which addresses critical environmental health issues in the Great Lakes region. The Environmental Protection Agency is leading the U.S. effort, which has ties to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and has a wealth of information posted on http://www.epa.gov/grtlakes/index.html. In 2012, Canada and the United States amended the GLWQA to facilitate U.S. and Canadian action on threats to Great Lakes water quality, including measures to prevent ecological harm and continue work to reduce harmful algae, toxic chemicals, and discharges from vessels. New provisions now address the effects of climate change.

The new provision to address the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes is clearly important.  As major news organizations have reported, water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron fell to record low levels in December 2012, attributed primarily to light snowfall in the winter of 2011–2012 and light rainfall in the spring. Low water levels and resulting impacts on ports, harbors, and marinas are not the only climate change concern, however. Just as consequential, an increase in storms (both severity and frequency) and increased precipitation runoff can have detrimental effects on sensitive near-shore coastal environments, such as wetlands and estuaries.

With its vast archive of weather and climate data, NOAA has an incredible amount of science-based knowledge to assist in that effort, which has not escaped the recognition of the GLWQA’s Executive Committee. In late 2012, NOAA’s Central Regional Climate Services Director Doug Kluck was appointed Cochair of the Subcommittee on Climate Change Impacts, along with Al Pietroniro, Director, Environment Canada, Water and Climate Services. Kluck and Pietroniro are responsible for organizing a group of experts on the Great Lakes and climate change impacts, ultimately for the purpose of providing information on climate change from past, current, and future studies needed to formulate the decisions of planned activities by the other eight annexes. As Kluck noted, “In light of the evidence of climate change throughout the United States and NCDC’s and NOAA’s in-depth knowledge of the subject, I feel privileged to assist the Executive Committee in its objective to use the best scientific data available to protect the Great Lakes.”

Under their leadership, the annex’s commitments are to:

  • report on the development and improvements of regional scale climate models (at appropriate temporal and spatial scales);
  • link projected climate change outputs to chemical, physical, biological models;
  • enhance monitoring of relevant climate and Great Lakes variables;
  • develop and improve analytical tools to understand and predict the impacts, risks, and vulnerabilities;
  • coordinate binational activities on climate change science (including monitoring, modeling and analysis); and
  • report on progress toward implementation of this Annex every three years.

The first meeting of the subcommittee occurred in December 2012. Since then, Kluck has been working closely with NOAA’s Coastal Services Center, Great Lakes Regional Coordinator, Heather Stirratt to develop applied actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts that have a bearing on water quality in the Great Lakes.