Sustaining Lake Superior in an Uncertain Future

Jul 12, 2019

Climate Change can be overwhelming to think about.

Author Nancy Langston has been researching Lake Superior for over a decade now though and she says local stories of people taking action give her hope.

Larry Lapachin continues our We Live Up Here series with the story.

 

It’s unusual for someone visit Lake Superior during a cold, blustery week in January and decide that they want to spend as much time as possible on the largest freshwater lake in the world. But for Nancy Langston, a professor of environmental history at Michigan Tech in Houghton, Michigan, that’s exactly what she set out to do.

 

Nancy Langston
Credit Michigan Technological University

Nancy still recalls that wintery day over 17 years ago near the Black River, just north of Bessemer, Michigan, that helped start her journey of researching and protecting Lake Superior. “And one day there, we went and snowshoed out to the Lake and there were these huge mountains of ice and those little ice volcanoes,” Nancy said, “and massive waves hitting and I fell completely in love with the Lake. Something about that extraordinary wildness and sense of power of the Lake and the endless horizon.”

 

The next year, Nancy bought a small cabin near Bayfield, spending summers on Lake Superior. Then, in 2012, she began looking for a job on its shores. According to Nancy, “at that point, Michigan Tech had just got the funding to build the Great Lakes Research Center, and they were looking for 3 people who specialized in water. I had gotten very involved in trying to help the Bad River Band, and their fight against Gogebic Taconite Iron mine that almost went in. I spent all my time working on Lake issues, writing a book about the Lake.

 

Nancy’s most recent book, Sustaining Lake Superior, examines the complex and complicated history of Lake Superior. A history that includes the loss of wetlands during the fur trade to the devastation of forests due to intense logging and mining. And Nancy also examines how Lake Superior isn’t as remote as we may assume, supporting Tribal communities along its shoreline for generations. And, looking forward, her book asks what historical lessons we can glean from the Lake’s resiliency to apply to current issues, such as climate change, which Nancy describes as “one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime” for Lake Superior.  

 

“The most surprising thing to me was certainly that we are the fastest warming lake in the world. Lake Superior of all the large lakes in the world is warming fastest,” said Nancy, “and the fact that we’re warming so quickly. Our air temperatures are warming at 1 degree F per decade which is incredibly fast and our water temperatures are warming at twice that, 2 degrees, so that’s changing everything about the Lake.”

 

And some projections with a warmer Lake Superior include an increase in algae blooms and invasive species, including quagga mussels, sea lamprey, and carp. Thriving in warmer waters, these invasive species may outcompete native, cold water fish, such as lake trout. And as we have experienced recently, more intense, severe storms may become more common. “We’ve had three 500 year rain events in 6 years,” offered Nancy, “and people have died. We see massive sediment flows. It really threatens the wild rice, threatens the fish, threatens our towns.”

 

Although we cannot stop climate change in its tracks, we can take action locally to help adapt to these intense storm events. Take, for example, the cities of Duluth, Minnesota and Thunder Bay, Ontario. “They also realized they needed to think in new ways about infrastructure, so they did a lot of planting of wetlands, what’s called green infrastructure,” said Nancy, “to slow the flow of water across the land, so they’re not stopping the very intense rain events, that’s a national, international effort. But what they’re doing is trying to do whatever they can to make sure intense rain doesn’t turn into intense flooding.”

 

People may feel despair when learning about dire climate change scenarios predicted for Lake Superior. In times like these, Nancy finds inspiration from people, both past and present, who fight for clean water. One such inspiration is a local leader, who united a community to protect Lake Superior and a cultural, important resource. 

 

“Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr of the Bad River Band who really helped pull many people in his community together,” Nancy explains, “to say we understand a big new mine, what would have been the biggest open pit mine in the world could bring jobs to some people, but wild rice and healthy ecosystems are more important to us, so we need to have a voice here. Mike sat and talked to us about when he was a kid riding on a John boat through the sloughs and trailing his fingers in the water. And realizing this was the core of who he was and he would do anything to protect this water.”

 

In a globalized world, however, we will continue to rely on extracted metals and timber. But being residents of and visitors to Lake Superior, we have a responsibly to make sure these activities are done with protective measures for Lake Superior.  

 

“One thing I’ve learned it’s always much, much, much cheaper to prevent pollution than to clean it up,” said Nancy, “so the simplest lesson is: prevent this mess and figure out how to do it cleanly and intelligently and don’t leave a mess for the future generations to fix.”

 

The foundation for protecting Lake Superior for future generations, however, starts with communication. Setting aside our differences and working together to help protect a lake that we deeply love. Maybe our conversation starts by sharing stories why we care so much about this Lake, including feeling the Lake’s fierce wind on wintery day to grazing your fingertips in its cool water in the summer. It’s recognizing what we might lose with a warmer Lake Superior. It’s understanding the importance and value of clean water.

 

“You can’t live without clean water. Water is life, Nancy explains. “Water, and the quality of water, determines the quality of life.”

All proceeds from Nancy Langston's book, Sustaining Lake Superior: an Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World, are being donated to local nonprofits working to protect and restore Lake Superior. The book can be purchased here and more information can be found on Nancy Langston's website here.

This story was written by Larry Lapachin and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Taoudella by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue).

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.