The Great Lakes: Keeping Them Clear and Keeping Them Here

Growing up in western Michigan I traveled to Lake Michigan with my family before I can even remember. Photographs of being at the beach is my only evidence for how young I was when I first experienced one of Michigan’s greatest natural resources, fresh water. I have also felt the lakes presence both directly and indirectly due to the lakes great effect on the local climate and its affect on the ecosystem. The Great Lakes contain 95 percent of the United States fresh water supply, and only trail the polar ice caps and Lake Baikal in Siberia in total volume of freshwater globally. Without the Great Lakes, the entire region surrounding Michigan would be much different, including the types of jobs and natural life in and around the state.

In an article from the Environmental Health Perspectives Journal appropriately titled “Importance of the Great Lakes,” David Petering and Val Klump summarize some of the most amazing statistics of the lake system. From an economic perspective, the Great Lakes serve as a natural waterway from inland waterways out to the Atlantic Ocean, and support a billion dollar per year commercial and recreational fishing. The Great Lakes also boast 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, which 15 million people rely on for drinking water, as well as water for agribusiness and recreation. Without the surrounding Great Lakes, the state economy would be at a loss for the money collected every year for boat permits, fishing licenses, and shipping fees. It amazes me that with society’s focus on doing anything and everything to make a dollar the Great Lakes can still stay so clean and healthy.

In his book, The Living Great Lakes, Jerry Dennis touches on the Montana slurry proposal, which is one of many attempts to pipe-out the Great Lakes region’s most important asset, its water. Dennis also mentions an interesting quote made by an Ontario premier, William Davis. “Have you ever considered what the Great Lakes would be worth at $25 a barrel?”. I was intrigued in Davis’ question and decided to do some calculations. Given the size of the Great Lakes six quadrillion gallons of fresh water. A standard barrel is equal to 42 U.S. gallons. Six quadrillion gallons divided by 42 gallons per barrel equates to just under 143 trillion barrels of water. 143 trillion barrels multiplied by the proposed $25 per barrel equals a value of about 3.57 quadrillion dollars. Quadrillion is a thousand trillion. For a better perspective on the incredible value this would have, as a monetary value this equals $3,570,000,000,000,000. Although tempting, selling the lakes’ water would inevitably cause more damage than the profits could fix.

Anyone who has lived in the Great Lakes region, or even visited western Michigan during the winter has heard of lake effect snow. Lake Effect snow forms when a storm collects evaporated water particles while traveling over one of the lakes, and deposits these particles in the form of snow over the land. The reason for this phenomenon is due to water’s natural high heat capacity, which is essentially just a resistance to sudden change in temperature. While winter temperatures are freezing the earth, water in the lakes resist sudden temperature drops, and very rarely freeze to the lake’s interior. The high heat capacity of water also leads to slightly warmer temperatures along the lakeshore during winter, as compared to inland temperatures of a few degrees less. This slight increase in temperature has proved essential for the coastline grape farms, which rely on the warm air currents coming off the lake to protect their crop. During the hot summer months, this high heat capacity is also the cause of the cool breeze, which attracts so many visitors to the water’s edge. The sheer volume of the lakes will never allow for rapid water temperature fluctuations, which helps protect regional business and the extensive number of species that call the lake home.

Without the Great Lakes, Michigan would most likely just be another plains state. The glaciers, which shaped Michigan and the Great Lakes, created land unique in its ecosystem and natural composition. Since the retreat of the glaciers, nearly 10,000 years ago, the Great Lakes have allowed a wide array of wildlife to thrive in the rolling hills of Michigan. During succession after the glaciers, the abundance of ground water, along with the amount of precipitation in the area allowed for forests and a wide variety of grasses to grow in Michigan. The plains states growth is limited by rainfall, and the soils inability to retain water. Many forms of animal life, especially fish, call this region home, and could not survive without the abundance of water. Salmon use the many intricate waterways, along with the Great Lakes, as a migratory route back to their breeding grounds from the ocean. Without the system of lakes, Salmon could not complete their life cycle, and some species would die out as a result.

Too many times business clouds our perception of what is truly the best option for our natural resources. Although selling the water in the Great Lakes could potentially turn a huge profit, the entire region would feel the negative effects of tampering with Mother Nature. Originally, drilling oil had some predicted consequences, but the effects of oil drilling in the Earth have proven far worse than anticipated. Natural life along with many varying forms of business, depend on the Great Lakes for protection and an easy way to regulate business. Our job as citizens in the Great Lakes region should not only be to fight to keep the water in the lakes here, but also work to keep the water clean and usable for many generations to follow.

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