Global Warming Cover-Up
Journal Sentinel’s coverage of Lake Michigan’s decline is bizarrely slanted. Why?
On Sunday the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a huge story documenting how a decrease in ice cover and other changes in weather are lowering the water level on Great Lakes like Michigan and Superior. The online version of the story was visually gorgeous and the reporting by two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Dan Egan was first-rate — save for one massive omission. Nowhere in the story did Egan explain the relationship between these changes and global warming.
Not once in the entire story, which runs 144 paragraphs and took up three full pages in the newspaper, did Egan ever mention the words “global climate change.” Indeed, he goes overboard to banish that thought from readers minds, writing that “This is not a story about climate change. It is a story about climate changed.”
The average reader, I suspect, knows about ice melting in the arctic and the habitat for the polar bear shrinking, but would not necessarily think this has any relationship to the lowering of Lake Michigan’s water level. But in fact, they are all part of the same phenomenon. How do I know this? Because nearly every expert in Egan’s story would tell you this — if the newspaper had ever bothered to ask.
For instance, Jia Wang is an ice research climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, and did a report which found Great Lakes ice coverage has decreased by an average of 71 percent over the past 40 years. Egan reports on his research but skips Wang’s explanation for why this is happening. “We are seeing the impact of global warming here in the Great Lakes,” Wang told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. No, you won’t find that quote in the Journal Sentinel story.
Then there’s Jay Austin, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, whose work on warming trends and ice cover on Lake Superior are reported in Egan’s story. Austin had no problems relating this to global climate change in talking to Chicago public radio station WBEZ: “Climate change is real,” he declared. “It’s something that’s not just happening half a world away.” But it’s not happening in the pages of the Journal Sentinel, because Egan didn’t include any such quote from Austin.
Then there’s Paul Roebber, a UW-Milwaukee meteorologist and associate dean of its School of Freshwater Sciences, who helps explain evaporation on Lake Michigan in Egan’s story. Is this transformation of the Great Lakes part of global climate change, I asked him? “Yes, he answered. “The changes in water temperature are not specific to the Great Lakes – this is happening to large, inland water bodies worldwide. Climate change is not restricted to the polar regions, so yes, it is part of the same global process.” Once again, you didn’t find that quote in Egan’s story.
Then there’s Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist at NOAA’s Great Lakes lab, who in Egan’s story helps explain how evaporation can happen on the Great Lakes in cooler months. “When you go through that radical a change, that’s climate change,” he told me. The changes on the Great Lakes are connected to increasing temperatures found across the globe, he noted. “It’s one of the best explanations we can see for what is happening.”
Finally, there’s Bob Krumenaker, park superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, who tells Egan how the ice cover near the islands in Lake Superior has all but disappeared in the winter. Interestingly, he told a similar story to WBEZ but also said much more.
“Kurmenaker said he had no idea climate change was hitting the Great Lakes until 2006, when he attended a conference,” the WBEZ story reported. “It was a very eye-opening moment in ways I can’t think of any other time in my career where I’ve said, Oh my God, I really need to get involved in this.”
“He and his staff took action, working to educate the public. They know climate change is global, but they say they want to do what they can to not make it worse. They’re switching to fuel-efficient vehicles, promoting bicycling, and experimenting with solar generators to reduce their carbon footprint.”
These scientists are not saying global climate change is the only cause of the warming and radical loss of ice cover on the Great Lakes. Wang, Austin and Gronewold have noted that natural variability in weather, including the El Nino event in the 1990s, have had an impact as well. But all believe global climate changes caused by human behavior is contributing to the warming of the Great Lakes.
There’s been a “lack of understanding of the global nature of this,” Roebber says.
Scientific groups are certainly trying to educate the public. The National Wildlife Foundation has done research to alert people about the impact of global climate change on the Great Lakes.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has done a report, Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region: Impacts on Our Communities and Ecosystems.
Then there’s the Healing our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition, which also published a report on the impact of global warming.
Scientists with Minnesota Sea Grant have also joined in, noting “it’s becoming obvious that Lake Superior is responding to global climate shifts as clearly as anywhere on Earth.”
And the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts was formed in the fall of 2007, by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, to educate the public about the impact of climate change in this state.
But these efforts won’t get far if the media ignores what these scientists are saying. Egan had a golden opportunity to explain to readers why Lakes Michigan and Superior are getting warmer and losing ice cover — and how this is not some isolated event, but part of a global phenomenon. He all but stood on his head to avoid doing so.
As I’ve written previously, the JS has done nearly 40 stories since 2005 about the declining water level of Lakes Michigan and Huron without ever mentioning global warming. Most of those stories were written by Egan, an excellent researcher who surely knows that most scientists studying the Great Lakes see global warming as a contributing factor. So why no mention of this in eight years? If his editors wanted this covered, believe me, they would have made that clear to Egan.
Instead, the newspaper has deliberately kept readers in the dark all these years. That includes me. I’ve read all of the Egan’s stories over the years and it never occurred to me until recently that Lake Michigan’s decline had anything to do with global warming.
On Wednesday, Egan did yet another massive story about the impact of the dredging of the St. Clair River in Michigan on the water level of lakes Michigan and Huron. Egan’s reporting has convinced me it’s a major factor, but he has also given some attention to dissenters who don’t believe its quite that bad or think it can’t be so easily fixed.
The same discussion, of course, could go on about global warming and its impact on the Great Lakes. The consensus of scientists is that human-caused climate change is transforming the globe, including the Great Lakes. There are some who might disagree and caveats a good reporter might need to note. But why is the newspaper so afraid to discuss a trend that is having such a profound impact on Lake Michigan?
People: Dan Egan
Government: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources