Baby, it’s cold outside … and winter is far from over

 

We’re just one month into winter (according to the calendar) and Mother Nature has already produced  conditions that test even the heartiest of Midwesterners. Here in West Michigan, we’ve had 66 inches of snow so far, wind chill readings that recently approached -30 (that’s 30 below zero) and a polar vortex that has created extensive ice cover on Lake Michigan.

More snow and a second polar vortex is headed our way this week. (see below)

This week's weather forecast for Grand Haven, Michigan.

This week’s weather forecast for Grand Haven, Michigan.

 

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, harsh winters are good for Great Lakes water levels. Ice cover reduces evaporation from the lakes — the single largest source of water loss from these inland seas. The lakes were in dire need of a boost after last winter, when water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron dipped to record lows.

The recent polar vortex left the Grand Haven lighthouse (and many others around the Great Lakes) encased in ice, (Photo by Cory Morse - Grand Rapids Press)

The recent polar vortex left the Grand Haven lighthouse (and many others around the Great Lakes) encased in ice, (Photo by Cory Morse – Grand Rapids Press)

Brutal winter conditions can also produce some amazing scenery. This photo of the iced-over Grand River and the Grand Haven lighthouse was taken by my friend Cory Morse, a photographer extraordinaire at the Grand Rapids Press. Cory ventured onto the icy Grand Haven pier recently to capture the sights of Winter 2014. His photos are a great way to experience the sights of winter without freezing your buns off. Check out his slideshow here. Enjoy!

 

 

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Key decision protects Au Sable River as new report highlights emerging threats to one of Michigan’s greatest rivers

Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh recently made an important decision that will help protect the vaunted Au Sable River from some of the environmental threats associated with deep shale fracking for natural gas.

Canada-based Encana Corp., which is rapidly expanding fracking operations across northern Lower Michigan, had its sights set on drilling near the Au Sable — one of the nation’s finest trout streams. That would have been environmentally risky at best, tragic at worst.

Fortunately, DNR Director Creagh heeded calls to prohibit surface drilling near the river. Read more about his decision on the Anglers of the Au Sable website.

Riverwatch.StateOfRiver.Cover

Creagh’s decision came at a critical juncture in the history of  the Au Sable. A new report commissioned by the Anglers of the Au Sable, and authored by yours truly, found that the river has recovered from many environmental problems but faces several new challenges. Leaky septic tanks, poorly regulated development and fracking-related water withdrawals pose serious threats to one of Michigan’s greatest rivers.

You can read and download the State of the Au Sable River report here,

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Christmas comes early for the Great Lakes

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

but for the (Great) Lakes, it’s so delightful …

Okay, that’s a pretty lame attempt at turning a Christmas classic into a jingle about the Great Lakes. But it makes an important point: Harsh winters, like the one we’re having so far, are good for Great Lakes water levels.

Bitter cold temperatures translate into more ice cover on the lakes. Ice cover reduces evaporation, which is by far the largest source of water loss from the lakes. Climate change has contributed to a 71 percent decrease in Great Lakes ice cover over the past 40 years, and that has lowered lake levels.  (Read my article about that here)

Great Lakes ice cover seems to be off to a good start this winter. Check out the photo (below) that I took Dec. 12 of icebergs forming on the Lake Michigan shoreline at Grand Haven, Michigan. I can’t recall seeing icebergs form on the Lake Michigan coast in early December, but I’ve only lived in West Michigan for 22 years.

The next time you curse flesh-freezing temperatures, as I have many times in just the past week, remember this: Brutally cold winters are good for the Great Lakes that we all cherish. Happy Holidays!

Icebergs on the Lake Michigan beach at Grand Haven, Mi., on Dec. 12. (Photo by Jeff Alexander)

Icebergs on the Lake Michigan beach at Grand Haven, Mi., on Dec. 12. (Photo by Jeff Alexander)

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2013 Lake Erie toxic algae bloom worse than predicted

A toxic algae bloom that covered part of Lake Erie this past summer — and forced the unprecedented shutdown of a municipal water treatment system — was worse than scientists had predicted, according to a new study.

Toxic algae blooms have become an annual problem in western Lake Erie.

Toxic algae blooms have become an annual problem in western Lake Erie.

The 2013 algae bloom was not as large as the 2011 bloom, which covered much of western Lake Erie. But elevated toxins in some areas of the lake this past summer shut down the water treatment system in Ottawa County’s Carroll Township to shut down — the first time that has ever happened in Ohio.

The Toledo Blade reported that the 2013 algae bloom could lead to major changes in water pollution regulations. The Ohio Phosphorus Task Force will soon release a report calling for a “40 percent reduction in all forms of phosphorus entering northwest Ohio waterways,”  according to the Blade article. Such a mandate could farms, cities, golf courses and homeowners. Read the complete Toledo Blade article here.

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D-Day for the Great Lakes: Asian carp are breeding in the basin

The day that Great Lakes lovers have been fearing for more than a decade has arrived: A breeding population of Asian carp has been found in the Great Lakes basin. As a result, I’ve adjusted the time on my Asian Carp Doomsday Clock to midnight — the witching hour.AsianCarpMidnight

Scientists on Monday reported finding a breeding population of Asian grass carp in Ohio’s Sandusky River, which flows into Lake Erie. The discovery is significant, according to experts, because grass carp have the same spawning needs as their more destructive cousins: The Asian bighead carp, which grows to 100 pounds; and Asian silver carp, which rocket out of the water when disturbed by the sound of boat motors.

Duane Chapman, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist and the pre-eminent expert on Asian carp, said the discovery of grass carp in the Sandusky River means it will be difficult to control Asian carp if they become established in the Great Lakes proper. 

This sounds to me like splitting hairs. The Sandusky River — like all tributaries that flow into lakes Erie, Ontario, Huron, Michigan and Superior — is an integral part of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

There is nothing to prevent Asian carp in the Sandusky River from spreading into Lake Erie and, from there, who knows how far. Bighead and silver carp consume huge quantities of plankton that other fish species need to survive and, as a result, would pose a major threat to the $7 billion Great Lakes fishery.

The discovery of a naturally reproducing population of Asian carp in the Great Lakes basin is a game changer. This is an historic and profoundly sad day for the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.

 

Posted in Asian carp, Fish, Great Lakes, Invasive species | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

For Halloween: Creepy video of Great Lakes vampires

If you’re looking for something truly creepy before Halloween, check out these videos of blood-sucking sea lamprey clinging to humans and fish. The videos were provided by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, which goes to great lengths to keep sea lamprey from taking over the lakes and wiping out fish populations.

Sea lamprey are an invasive species that snuck into the Great Lakes in the early 1900s via manmade canals. The eel-like fish, which cling to fish and suck their bodily fluids until they die, decimated lake trout and whitefish in the Great Lakes before scientists in the 1950s figured out how to kill the swimming vampires.

I’ve had the bizarre experience of a sea lamprey clinging to my arm. It’s unsettling, to say the least, to think that there are thousands of these monsters patrolling the Great Lakes. Sea lamprey only feed on cold-blooded creatures, i.e. fish, but there have been documented cases of the bloodsuckers clinging to people swimming in the Great Lakes. Ick.

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Four nuclear power plants on the Great Lakes rank among the nation’s worst for high level safety violations

A new government report on safety violations at nuclear power plants shows that four of the nation’s worst facilities (in terms of higher level violations) are located on the shores of the Great Lakes.

The Palisades nuclear power plant in West Michigan.

The Palisades nuclear power plant in West Michigan recently spilled radioactive water into Lake Michigan.

The report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, revealed several problems with how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission enforces safety regulations at the nation’s aging fleet of nuclear power plants. The Associated Press, which broke the story, said the GAO study  “showed that the number of safety violations at nuclear power plants varies dramatically from region to region, pointing to inconsistent enforcement in an industry now operating mostly beyond its original 40-year licenses. Read the entire AP story here.

Most alarming for those of us in the Great Lakes region was the GAO’s disclosure that four of the six nuclear power plants with the most “higher level violations” between 2000 and 2012 are located on the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie. They are: The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio,  which had 14 higher level violations; the recently closed Kewaunee Power Station in Kewaunee, Wis., with nine violations; the Perry Nuclear Generating Station in Perry, Ohio, eight violations; and the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in Covert, Mich., which had eight higher level violations, according to the GAO report.

These findings are disturbing for obvious reasons: The four troubled nuclear power plants are located on the largest source of surface freshwater on the planet. More than 30 million people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water and the lakes support one of the world’s largest regional economies.

Some violations have resulted in radioactive water being discharged into the Great Lakes and the air.

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Posted in Air pollution, Climate, Energy, Fish, Great Lakes, Nuclear power, Pollution, Water | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments