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Scientists: Climate change could prompt a rebound – and problems – in Great Lakes region

WASHINGTON – The fresh water of the Great Lakes may protect the region from the worst ravages of climate change – and could even help the region's population to rebound as other parts of the nation find themselves parched by the heat or flooded by rising sea levels.

That's what a panel of scientists had to say this week during a Capitol Hill briefing on "Climate Change Impacts on the Great Lakes."

Climate change will alter the region dramatically, the scientists said. Stormier weather, possible increases in lake-effect snow and an increasing threat from invasive species all count among the threats the Great Lakes region faces.

But the scientists acknowledged those threats don't quite compare to the rising sea levels that threaten to reclaim parts of Florida or the 110 degree days that could become common in the Southwest.

"I've long said the migration away from the Midwest is going to change over the coming decades because of the difficulties likely to happen in the Southeast and Southwest – not only sea-level rise, but just the warming temperatures making conditions there much more unlivable," said Donald J. Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois.

Dana Infante, associate professor in the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University, agreed.

"I suspect that parts of the U.S. are going to become unfavorable for reasons whether it's loss of landscape, sea-level rise, temperature or limited resources," she said after the event. "And given we're in the northern latitudes, we have some advantages."

The region's chief advantage? The Great Lakes themselves.

"The biggest economic opportunity in the Great Lakes area is simply the availability of fresh water," said Howard Learner, president and director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which sponsored Tuesday's event.

For years, Learner noted, the U.S. Department of Defense modeled and predicted future wars based on issues such as religious differences. But in the era of climate change, he said, the Pentagon now models future wars based on the absence of water – something that's not a concern in the Great Lakes region, which holds a fifth of the world's fresh water supply.

Within the U.S., some regions are growing beyond what the local water resources will support, the panelists said. That being the case, Learner said the Great Lakes region could see a population rebound so long as it protects the Great Lakes and keeps them clean.

"Indeed, there may be some migration back to the Midwest and the Great Lakes, a place because the availability of water is a huge economic asset and a huge livability asset," Learner said.

Wuebbles warned that other regions may try to divert some of that Great Lakes water for their own uses, but Learner said that's unlikely to happen.

"Simply put, because of various state actions and federal actions, any large-scale diversion of fresh water from the Great Lakes to other regions of the country would be extraordinarily difficult to do," Learner said.

So how big might a regional Great Lakes population comeback be? Panelists at the event earlier this week seemed reluctant to speculate, given that there's no way to know exactly how climate change will ravage other parts of the country.

Migration will depend on how other areas are affected, said Ashish Sharma, a University of Illinois research climatologist.

Scientists are not entirely sure of how the Great Lakes region will be altered by climate change, either.

The Capitol Hill event was held to mark the release of the Environmental Law and Policy Center report called "An Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Lakes." That report projected that by the end of the century, daily temperatures in the Great Lakes region will be somewhere between 5.7 to 9.8 degrees higher than they were from 1976 through 2005.

Report says climate change will reshape Western New York

That increase will have some big effects on the region. For example:

• Noting that precipitation in the Great Lakes region increased about 10% between 1901 and 2015, the scientists predicted continued increased precipitation, particularly in the winter and spring. "These increases in precipitation will likely increase flooding across the Great Lakes region," the report said.

• Citing Buffalo's gigantic November snowfall in 2014, the report projected more heavy lake-effect snowfalls. More of Lake Erie will remain unfrozen in future winters, and for longer periods of time, thereby increasing the odds of mammoth lake-effect storms.

• The threat of invasive species could grow in the Great Lakes, all because the warmer waters could attract the unwanted creatures. The report cited the sea lamprey as a particular threat to the lakes' traditional fish population – which could actually grow in the warmer waters if underwater invaders are kept under control.

If all those threats of climate change sound familiar, there's a reason for that, the scientists said. They noted that the region's weather has already warmed by about 1.4 degrees since 1985. And as predicted, the region is already getting stormier, the scientists said, citing the heavy spring rains that spawned flooding along Lake Ontario in recent years.

"This is real," Learner said. "This is what the sound science says. This is what's happening."

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