Climate challenges crop up in Michigan

The Grand Rapids Climate Resiliency Report, released in 2013, makes it clear that climate change is not an abstract, vague global problem, but one that has significant local implications. The report could hardly be more timely: it was released shortly after the April 2013 flood, which threatened Grand Rapids’ downtown core.

Climate change models predict not only a greater likelihood of extreme events like that flood, but also a long-term trend of greater weather fluctuations from year to year and season to season. This trend is projected to increase the number of freeze-thaw cycles through the winter and spring—which is fortunate for maple syrup harvesters, but unfortunate for other harvesters and anyone who uses roads and sidewalks.

Climate change can claim credit for more than inconvenience to motorists and pedestrians—and for disruptions to more industries than farming. The Grand River currently provides a renowned urban fishery—named the sixth best in the nation by Field and Stream in 2006—whose steelhead trout are sensitive to climate change. Reductions in Great Lakes ice coverage influences the aquatic ecosystem and the fishing industry that depends on it, as well as the shipping market. Between the years of 1973 and 2011, total winter ice coverage of the Great Lakes decreased by 71 percent. During the same span, average winter air temperature increased by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

As much as increased air temperatures pique our interest, the ecosystems of the Grand River are at home here, and will not take kindly to hiked up temperatures. Many species will not take it at all, and will either move north or tacitly vanish.

According to Nichol De Mol, project manager for Trout Unlimited’s Rogue River Home Rivers Initiative, the list of imperiled species could include some of the cold-water fish so valued by Grand River and Great Lakes fisheries. The proposed plan to restore the river’s whitewater, when implemented, could increase these species’ resilience to projected changes to the river’s temperature. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources also identifies Lake Sturgeon—the affectionately named “living fossil”—as highly vulnerable to climate change. The National Wildlife Federation suggests that species in the Great Lakes region threatened by climate change range from North America’s most charismatic megafauna—the moose—to the comparatively diminutive yellow-headed blackbirds.  

Even those species that are intentionally maintained—crops, primarily—may struggle to withstand the projected weather fluctuations. 2012 was a bad year for Michigan’s fruit growers. Unseasonably high temperatures in mid-March prompted trees to blossom early, only to be struck with a deep freeze weeks later. The Resiliency Report suggests that between 80 and 95 percent of fruit crops (representing about $207 million in revenue) were lost as a result. The same year saw drought conditions that imperilled Michigan’s field crops as well. While it is impossible to point to climate change as the cause of any individual weather event, the phenomenon is expected to increase the frequency of unusual and unseasonable weather events.

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