Photograph by Keith Ladzinski
Photograph by Keith Ladzinski
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Can we make these lakes great again?

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By Robert Kunzig, ENVIRONMENT executive editor

In the 60s and 70s, when I was growing up, phosphate in detergents was one of our biggest environmental concerns, because it contaminated the Great Lakes. Rivers in Cleveland or Detroit still caught fire then. It was a simpler time.

Environmental problems seemed relatively contained, manageable. It seemed that by taking phosphate out of detergent and other pollutants out of a few rivers, we could make the Great Lakes great again. I should say “whole” again, because of course the lakes had never stopped being great. They hold almost 85 percent of North America’s fresh surface water and a fifth of the world’s. Their coastline is longer than the East and West coasts combined.

They’re as huge and as seemingly immutable a part of our geography and collective imagination as the Rocky Mountains—but while the Rockies are tens of millions of years old, the lakes were gouged out of bedrock by retreating glaciers only some 10,000 years ago. In their present form, they’re younger than the Egyptian pyramids, Tim Folger writes in this month’s cover story. From the shore, they may look big as oceans, but “they’re immature, more susceptible to threats.”

These days the threats are more global and daunting than in the good old days of burning rivers. They come from climate change, which is warming the lakes, diminishing their winter ice cover, and decimating the tiny plankton at the base of the food web. More than 180 invasive species, like zebra mussels and sea lampreys, have disrupted the food web from top to bottom. (Pictured above, floodwater from Lake Michigan pours over a walkway in Chicago in 2019; extreme weather caused the lake to rise two feet.)

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For a while in the 90s, the lakes were blessedly free of the algae blooms that clog them when too many nutrients wash into the water. After the Clean Water Act of 1972, we built sewage treatment plants and removed phosphate from laundry detergent. But in the past two decades the blooms have returned, more toxic than ever, especially in Lake Erie (pictured above, in 2019). Now the phosphorus is washing off over-fertilized corn fields. Sadly, the problem seems to be aggravated by no-till agriculture—an eco-friendly practice designed to prevent soil erosion—as well as by the extreme rains that climate change is bringing.

These days, old industrial cities like Duluth or Buffalo are mentioned as places that might be reborn as havens for climate change refugees from places like Alabama, where I live now. The water in the Great Lakes, Folger tells us, may come to seem a far more valuable asset to this country—as droughts increase—than all our coal, oil, and natural gas. The Great Lakes will never stop being great. But once again it’s time to stop taking them for granted.

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Today in a minute

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Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

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In a few words

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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.

The last glimpse

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This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this newsletter. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading!