Newspaper Wears Blinders on Global Warming
In eight years of stories on Lake Michigan’s water level, the Journal Sentinel has never mentioned global warming.
For a mid-sized newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has managed to devote a lot of resources to environmental reporting. It may be the only newspaper in the nation with a full-time Great Lakes Reporter, as Dan Egan is designated. The paper’s focus on the environment makes sense for a state that is so known for its lakes and rivers and woods, but I suspect it also bespeaks the priorities of Managing Editor George Stanley, who got his start as an outdoor writer for the magazine Ducks Unlimited and outdoor writer/editor for the Wichita Eagle.
As a result, it seems the paper always has room for stories about changes in the Great Lakes. And Egan, a two-time Pulitzer finalist, has responded to this opportunity with some terrific stories about invasive species like zebra mussels and Asian Carp. His reporting has also helped lead the national discussion on a problem contributing to declining water levels on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
As Egan has reported, the two lakes (or one, as he’s explained: they function as one body of water) have gone more than 14 years with below average lake levels. In January they were 2.5 feet below average level and 6 ft below their record high. Why? Egan has focused on a problem caused by dredging in the St. Clair River undertaken decades ago to provide access for deep-draft freighters into the upper Great Lakes. This, Egan reports, means more water can flow out of lakes Michigan and Huron, into the St. Clair and then Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls and, ultimately, out to the Atlantic Ocean.
“Army Corps hydrologists have long acknowledged that historic dredging and mining in the riverbed lowered the long-term average of Michigan and Huron,” Egan has reported.
It’s a great story, and Stanley appears to have an unlimited appetite for follow-up articles. Egan has been covering the story since at least 2005, and I count 39 stories in the paper’s online archive on the water level of lakes Michigan and Huron. But not one story on global warming as a possible cause. That’s extraordinary.
One study for International Upper Great Lakes found that climate change, not the St. Clair dredging, is the main cause of decline in water level for lakes Michigan and Huron. The study may be biased, may be exaggerated, but how is it possible that Egan has never even addressed global warming’s impact on declining water levels?
The National Wildlife Federation predicts increases in water temperature of up to 12 degrees and decreases in water level of up to 8.2 feet for the Great Lakes driven by global warming. That includes Lake Erie, which could drop 4-5 feet by the end of the century (despite getting some of that extra water flowing from lakes Michigan and Huron that Egan has reported on). This could cause massive changes in the lakes’ ecology, including less habitat for coldwater fish, increases in aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels and hazardous algal blooms, dead zones lacking any oxygen and an increased impact from pollution.
The Great Lakes have lost 71% of their ice cover since 1973, according to a study by the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. This past winter, the five lakes were nearly ice free with just 5 percent ice coverage, the second lowest on record. This compares to 1979 when ice coverage was as much as 94 percent.
“Ice cover was found to be a strong determinant of summer water temperature, and this in turn, can lead to changes in late-summer evaporation rates,” researcher Katherine Van Cleave told National Geographic. And that can drive declines in water levels.
By far the fastest warming is occurring in Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and third largest by volume (and a lake that borders Wisconsin, giving it added local importance). And by far the most environmental stress is occurring on lakes Erie and Ontario, as one analysis has found. Yet the JS has concentrated all of its reporting on the two lakes that may actually face the least possible long-term damage.
I doubt that Egan, a bright and dogged reported, is unaware of all of this. My experience at the Journal Sentinel is that reporters could easily intuit what editors did not want reported. And global warming is a flash point for talk radio and conservative readers, who get outraged by any mention of the issue, and could be expected to lash out at the newspaper. So maybe it’s easier to ignore that issue, and leave readers in the dark as to the momentous changes many experts say imperil five lakes containing 20 percent of the planet’s fresh water.
A source at the newspaper tells me Egan is now working on a story looking at the impact of global warming on lakes Michigan and Huron. The story, if it is published, is about eight years overdue.