Lake Superior is warming fast. Its national parks are starting work to cut fossil fuels

Lake Superior is warming fast. Its national parks are starting work to cut fossil fuels
March 12, 2024 Interlochen Public Radio

By Izzy Ross, Interlochen Public Radio

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with IPR and Grist, a nonprofit independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future.

As national parks around the country try to raise awareness about climate change, those around Lake Superior are taking steps to cut their emissions.

“Even though the carbon footprint is small, the example being led by these parks is huge,” said Tom Irvine, executive director of the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation, which supports five sites around the largest of the Great Lakes.

The foundation and the National Park Service announced last week that the parks are starting to implement plans to get their operations off fossil fuels.

The coordinated effort, called Decarbonize the Parks Project, launched last year and has roots in long-standing plans to stop using diesel generators on Isle Royale, according to Irvine.

“It’s been a dream of the park service for years to be able to shut those generators down and create a green energy source to power the island, and that being primarily solar and solar battery storage,” he said.

Now, the park is working toward that goal by installing heat pumps for staff housing and administrative buildings.

Isle Royale’s superintendent, Denice Swanke, said in a news release that each park is working based on its own budget and capacity. Other plans include electrifying mowers, trimmers and chainsaws in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and exploring solar options in Keweenaw National Historical Park.

The efforts around Lake Superior are part of National Park Service’s Green Parks Plan, which lays out net-zero energy goals for parks across the country and includes reducing waste and water use and phasing out single-use plastics.

The country’s national parks emit 179,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually according to the National Park Service, which says that’s equal to about 40,000 gasoline-powered cars driven over a year.

Last year, more than a million people visited the parks around Lake Superior — Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Grand Portage National Monument, Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

A graph showing how much it would cost for Lake Superior’s national parks to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gases, published in the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation Decarbonization Plan Summary (Credit: National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation)

A 2023 report on the project found that the parks could reduce their emissions by 93% and save $2.7 million over 25 years compared to their current operations. Cutting emissions fully would cost $3.5 million. The difference in price is because of the solar arrays and battery storage needed to bring energy to off-grid locations in all weather conditions. Both options would reduce operating costs by millions of dollars.

Implementing the parks’ plans is expected to take years, funded by public and private dollars.

Fueling these efforts is the rapidly changing climate. Lake Superior is one of the fastest-warming lakes in the world, and Irvine said they have seen more intense storms and much less ice in the winter.

“The fact that climate change is so radically apparent on Lake Superior every day is just a constant reminder to all of these parks,” he said.

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Featured image: Miners Castle as seen from the upper overlook. It’s a landmark along the Pictured Rock National Lakeshore. (Photo: National Park Service)


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