From the Great Lakes to Coastal Louisiana: Climate Change Will Affect Everyone

Mississippi Freighter
A freighter passing through New Orleans on the Mississippi River. Photo/Celia Haven
I spent last week in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the American Meteorological Society’s Annual Meeting. The Great Lakes Regional Center‘s Adaptation Program Manager Melinda Koslow and I traveled to the Big Easy to learn about climate change programs around the country and share our progress in the Great Lakes.

I attended a panel on adaptation policies and technologies in the Southeast, in which NWF’s Alisha Renfro and Derek Brockbank talked about the efforts that NWF is leading to restore the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana. Alisha and Derek talked about some of the challenges facing the Delta, and I was struck by some of the parallels between the Great Lakes and Coastal Louisiana and the similarities in the issues that both are facing.

Shipping: The Mississippi River provides shipping access to the Gulf of Mexico for much of the midwest, allowing grain and other commodities to travel in and out of the region. The Great Lakes serve the same function – iron ore mined in Great Lakes states can go out the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean, and coal can be delivered to power plants on the lakes. Both the Coastal Louisiana and Great Lakes economies depend on shipping and the associated ports.

Fishing: Sport and commercial fishing are a significant part of the Great Lakes – recreational fishing alone is valued at $7 billion in the region. People across the Gulf Coast depend on fishing – it’s a considerable part of their culture and how many people make a living.

Asian Carp: Asian Carp have already reached the Mississippi River and have been wreaking havoc on its ecosystem for years throughout the midwest. The carp are not present in all lakes and rivers along the gulf coast, however, and so the threat of spreading Asian Carp to untainted waters during flooding is serious. Similarly, the Great Lakes are facing a possible inundation from Asian Carp – if the carp make it through the waterways that connect the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan, the effects could be devastating for the Great Lakes.

Oil Spills: 2010 brought oil spills to both Louisiana and Michigan. The entire country watched in horror as millions and millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf, destroying ecosystems and devastating people’s way of life. The Enbridge oil spill in Michigan that summer was a fraction of the size – nearly one million gallons, but it happened right in residents’ back yards and there were immediate effects on public health – especially for children. Both areas are still feeling the effects of the spilled oil and learning what the consequences will be in the long term.

Feeling the effects of climate change

Clinton River Spillway
Phragmites along the Clinton River Spillway, site of a future restoration project that NWF is partnering with to make climate-smart. Photo/Celia Haven
These two areas in opposite parts of our country have so much in common and face many similar challenges – including climate change. But climate change is affecting the regions in different ways. In Louisiana, sea level rise is causing problems for everyone – much of the southern portion of the state is barely above sea level, and cities like New Orleans are in constant danger from sea level rise. The Great Lakes, on the other hand, are facing a more uncertain future. While changes like warming temperatures and increased rainfall are already apparent, the effects on lake levels are still unknown – climate models predict drops in lake levels under some scenarios, and rises in others.

These changes can have dramatic and damaging effects for those who depend on these waters. As sea levels rise along the Gulf Coast, more of the coastal wetlands will erode, eliminating the natural buffer that protects cities along the delta from extreme weather. On the other hand, if Great Lakes water levels drop, it could have implications for the shipping industry as rivers and ports become too shallow. In both places, invasive species can destroy the fishing industries and cause more stress on tourism. And ecosystems that are already feeling multiple stressors are less likely to be able to cope with unpredictable man-made disasters, like oil spills.

No matter how you look at it, the effects of climate change on either of these ecosystems could be devastating. That’s why NWF’s work to restore the Mississippi River Delta and to restore the Great Lakes is so important. We’re working to safeguard and these ecosystems so that the way of life for those in these two regions is preserved.

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