A familiar view for many who live and play around the Great Lakes graces the current cover of National Geographic – a stormy sunset over Lake Michigan, seen from the sandy beaches of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
The feature story of the magazine’s December 2020 issue puts a spotlight on the Great Lakes. It’s a comprehensive piece that delves into the issues plaguing the lakes and the impact those are having on the people whose lives are deeply entwined with those lakes. That includes scientists who base their life’s work around studying these waters, traditional Anishinaabe trappers, and officials in cities along the shorelines.
The story serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it looks back on key events in the Great Lakes watershed that influenced environmental awareness around the nation like the Cuyahoga River fire. At the same time, it explores issues that people around the world can see reflected in their own environments and communities.
“Most of the issues facing the Great Lakes are going to be affecting lakes around the world,” said Tim Folger, author of the story and National Geographic contributor.
Check out the Great Lakes stories and graphics from National Geographic here.
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Great Lakes Now News Director Natasha Blakely had a conversation with Folger. Here’s an edited version of that interview.
Great Lakes Now: The article read like maybe it was your first time to the Great Lakes. What drew you to them for this piece?
Tim Folger: Well, you’re right. It definitely was my first visit. Aside from some trips to Chicago where I saw Lake Michigan, this was really my first exposure to the Great Lakes. And it was an assignment that was given to me by National Geographic.
My editor just called me up one day two years ago, asked me if I wanted to write about the Great Lakes. So it was kind of daunting assignment. And the reason National Geographic really wanted to focus on the Great Lakes now initially was it was getting to be around 50 years since this momentous event on the Great Lakes, when the Cuyahoga River caught fire – that’s the river that flows into Lake Erie near Cleveland – caught fire in the summer of 1969. And that event was one of the events that triggered the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Act. And in that same summer, a river near Detroit, the Rouge River also caught fire. So those two events really catalyzed environmental awareness in this country. And I think to kind of commemorate that event, National Geographic wanted to do a story about the Great Lakes.
My very first piece for this assignment was actually a web story about the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969 and the progress actually. You know, the Great Lakes are definitely facing a lot of problems and really serious challenges, but there’s also been a lot of progress. In some respects, the lakes are cleaner than they’ve ever been. You don’t have rivers catching fire anymore, but we have now in some ways problems that are going to be more difficult to solve.
Read more on the Cuyahoga and Rouge River fires on Great Lakes Now and watch our segment on it:
GLN: So kind of jumping off of that in the article, you do explore a lot of the changes that were happening. Can you explain what the biggest changes were that the lakes were experiencing? How did you decide which to cover in your article?
TF: Yeah, that was a challenge with such a complex system – the largest freshwater system in the world, what do you write about? But there are really three big problems that became obvious as soon as you at start looking into the story. No. 1 is climate change is kind of the overarching problem that makes all the other problems worse, and if we don’t address climate change, all the other problems will be very difficult to remedy. So that was No. 1.
The second one was something I just learned about as I started delving into the story. And that was the importance of agricultural runoff as a pollutant into the Great Lakes. It’s an enormous problem because fertilizer runoff, in particular phosphorus runoff into the Great Lakes, feeds algal blooms. These algae are always present in the lakes and they’re kind of a natural part of the lakes, but if they’re kind of given too much food, they grow and these blooms can be enormous – hundreds of miles long. And they’ve just created some really catastrophic problems. In 2014, an algal bloom shut down the water supply of Toledo for three days.
Also, the algal blooms are, you know, they kind of tie the problems of the Great Lakes to problems that pretty much every other freshwater system in the world is going to face. Algal blooms are a problem in lakes all over the world and they’re going to get worse. Algal blooms also release this very potent greenhouse gas, methane, it’s dozens of times more damaging in its global warming effects than carbon dioxide.
So it’s not just drinking water. It’s not just like a recreational problem that your beach is closed. It’s something that contributes to the catastrophe of global warming. And they’re related to a third problem was invasive species. The Great Lakes host more invasive species than any other body of fresh water on the planet.
See related articles and segments on Great Lakes Now:
Also check out Michigan Radio’s interview with Tim Folger and photographer Keith Ladzinski here.
GLN: Jumping back a tiny bit, but a lot of people, they have their first glimpses of the Great Lakes or they describe the emotional connection to it, I think some of the sources that you quote in the story really talk about their connection to the Great Lakes. So what was it like for you seeing some of these places for the first time when you were reporting?
TF: Oh, yeah. The best part of my job is when I’m out there in the field traveling and seeing these places, like you said, for the first time. Flying to Chicago and just seeing this, you see all the skyscrapers just rising up over the shoreline, you can’t think of a more beautiful setting for a city, really, than right on the edge of the lake. And Detroit too with Belle Isle, which has been a success story. I drove at one point from all along the northwest shore of Lake Superior, from Duluth to the small town kind of on the northernmost shore of Lake Superior called Nipigon, which is in the headwaters region of Lake Superior. And it was just so astonishingly beautiful. In most lakes, you can kind of see the other shore, but in the Great Lakes it just looks like you’re at sea. And I got to go out on a research vessel on Lake Superior with some scientists, one beautiful day, and you sail out of sight of land and you’re surrounded by water, and it’s like you’re sailing at sea. It brought home how unique these lakes are and what an irreplaceable resource they are for North America.
GLN: Speaking of Lake Superior and new experiences and everything, you ended up diving into ice Cold Lake Superior, didn’t you, for the article?
TF: I did, yeah. When I was at the University of Minnesota, one of the first people I met, a lake ecologist named Andrew Bramburger – he was at the University of Minnesota at the time, now he’s with Environment Canada. That’s basically Canada’s EPA. He said he and a group of friends and colleagues, once a month they jump into the lake in the morning, year round no matter what. And he sent me pictures of people standing on little ice floes, jumping into the lake in the winter. So, yeah, I joined him and his friends one morning, it’s like 5:30, wet and cold. They had built this big bonfire on the shore and we were drinking coffee. The shoreline was really rocky, so I was kind of hobbling along into the water. But yeah, it was a wonderful experience. Icy cold and, yeah, it was great, just this kind of baptism by coldness. It was really a nice experience, and it’s not something I was looking forward to ahead of time, but once I got there and had finished my third dunk in the lake that morning, it was wonderful.
GLN: National Geographic has a worldwide audience. How are you making an argument to them with the publication of this article that they should care about the Great Lakes and the watershed here, even if they live in some other part of the world?
TF: Most of the issues facing the Great Lakes are going to be affecting lakes around the world, especially that issue of harmful algal blooms. They’re on the rise around the world. Algal blooms have have shut down reservoirs in China. There’s that risk that I mentioned of increased methane coming from algal blooms. And right now, the leading source of methane emissions in the world are our wetlands. But if we keep dumping fertilizer runoff into the Great Lakes and other lakes around the world, lakes could become the leading source of methane emissions. So these these bodies of water that we depend on, we don’t want them to become sources of this potent greenhouse gas. It’s going to make our our problems even worse, so there’s this universal quality to the problems that are facing the Great Lakes that really apply to lakes all over the world.
GLN: So with all these challenges and what you mentioned about solutions, with all the people that you talked to, did you get the impression that more of them were looking at this as something to adapt to or something that needs intervention and they can intervene in?
TF: Yeah, at this point, well, you will certainly need to do both. I think some of the changes that have been set in motion, climate change, we’ve released so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere now that some things are irreversible. The entire Great Lakes region is predicted to have more severe storms, intense spring rainfall, less winter ice, so that’s just kind of a given that we’re going to have to adapt to. I mean, that doesn’t mean we have to let things get worse. We should do our best to make sure that they don’t get worse. But there’s going to be adaptation. How far, what are the limits to our ability to adapt? We just got to make sure we’re not pushed to those limits.
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GLN: What are you hoping is the main takeaway for people reading this story?
TF: That we have this extraordinary resource, that North America has this natural wonder, these five Great Lakes or, you know, some people say six Great Lakes, if you include Lake St. Clair. Just the wildlife, the amount of freshwater that supports all these great cities, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto. Cities wouldn’t be what they are without the Great Lakes. And for me, visiting them, just having seen them, as you said for the first time as the Great Lakes newbie, made me want to go back. I had never really thought of that Great Lakes as a destination, but it’s like they’re maybe the most beautiful part of North America and I hope that comes across, just how irreplaceable and how precious and how beautiful this region is.
For more on this story, visit National Geographic’s website.
Check out more work from Tim Folger on National Geographic here:
Featured image: Lake Michigan –Floodwater pours over a walkway at Montrose Beach near downtown Chicago. In the first half of 2019, heavy rains raised the lake level by almost two feet. Scientists expect the frequency of extreme weather to increase across the region in the decades ahead. (Keith Ladzinski/National Geographic)