This story appears in the December 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
I grew up in the Great Lakes State, and for many years now, during my annual summer (yes, it has to be summer) visit back to Michigan, I’m always happy about what I don’t see. I don’t see throngs of Californians (sorry) swarming adorable lakeside towns like Petoskey or Glen Arbor. I don’t see hordes of New Yorkers (sorry) splashing about Lake Michigan or thundering down the steep white sands of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
No offense to the multitudes on both coasts, but I’ve always been glad the still-unspoiled charms of northwest Michigan felt like my secret—or at least a secret held by a smaller group of people, largely from the Midwest.
Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about the downside of being out of sight and out of mind.
Most people seldom think about Lakes Michigan, Huron, Superior, Erie, and Ontario. Many can’t even name all five. But they should care about them because, as Tim Folger writes in this month’s cover story, the Great Lakes are “arguably the continent’s most precious resource, incalculably more valuable than oil, gas, or coal.”
Together the lakes hold more than 20 percent of the surface freshwater on Earth and 84 percent of the surface freshwater in North America. Almost 40 million Americans and Canadians “drink from the lakes, fish on them, transport goods over them, farm their shores, and work in cities that wouldn’t exist” without them, Folger writes.
And yet we abuse them terribly: polluting them, introducing invasive species, allowing fertilizer runoff to create algal blooms large enough that they can be seen from space. Climate change means the lakes don’t freeze as much as they used to, and severe storms have become more frequent.
Everywhere you look on Earth, there are big problems. Fires out of control on the U.S. West Coast and, shockingly, in the Siberian Arctic. Melting ice in Antarctica and melting glaciers in the Himalaya. The careless destruction of the Amazonian rainforest. You hear a lot about these problems in National Geographic and in other media. But we hear less about what’s happening to the Great Lakes: the irreplaceable, fragile ecosystem of six quadrillion gallons of freshwater that our planet needs to survive.
So read Folger’s story. Appreciate the beauty of the landscape in the stunning photos by Keith Ladzinski. Become an advocate to protect our Great Lakes. (But please, don’t visit.)
Thank you for reading National Geographic.