- http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/…/down-the…/ENVIRONMENT.NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM|BY BY JOHN G. MITCHELL
The world’s largest freshwater system has shrunk before, but never so quickly. In Traverse City, Michigan, empty chaises at a resort—on what once was lake bottom—reflect how the Great Lakes tourist economy has slipped in sync with falling water levels. And the farther the waters recede, the higher anxiety rises.
It takes a long time to learn how to get along with a lake. A decade isn’t half enough. A generation might do. Then, if you have lived that long beside a lake the size of Michigan, you begin to understand that there’s something about the fluctuating level of the water that makes no apologies for any inconvenience it may cause. Here is a wide sandy beach; thbenefere, a cottage perched at the lips of a crumbling bluff. Now you see them, now you don’t. It’s enough to keep a person guessing. The lake couldn’t care less.
On the Old Mission Peninsula in Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, Ted Cline gave up guessing years ago. Since 1957 he and his wife, Jean, have lived here in a home overlooking the bay. From the edge of the lawn, steps go down to a fine sand beach, almost to the water when the level’s up. But not long after the Clines moved in, they had to take a walk to wet their feet—the level of Lake Michigan had fallen lower than at any time since surface measurements were first recorded in the 19th century. A shade over 20 years later the lake was up again, higher than it had been in a century, lapping at the foot of the Clines’ steps.
Last summer I stood with Cline above the lake and saw how it might have looked back in that earlier record-low time of 1964. For now, after years of drought and simmering annual temperatures, the levels of the Great Lakes had fallen once again, all the way from Duluth, Minnesota, to Kingston, Ontario, at the head of the St. Lawrence River. This is not just a matter of inconvenience to a hundred thousand riparian landowners along U.S. and Canadian shores, though more than a few of them are being put to the expense of extending their docks. It is a matter of concern to the multitudinous cities and farms dependent on lake water, to the boating and fishing segments of the region’s multi billion-dollar tourism industry, and to the operators of deep-draft ships that ply these inland ports and waterways to hitch North America’s heartland to the markets of the world.
And right here the wide, weedy beaches and rocky shoals of the Old Mission Peninsula said it all: Another couple of years of climatic deprivation and the greatest of these lakes might well bottom out at levels lower than any recorded in historic times.
“Oh, the lake will come back up someday,” Cline said. A retired surgeon and World War II leatherneck dive-bomber pilot, he has seen much of the upper Great Lakes from the cockpit of his private plane, flying aerial photography assignments for books and magazines. Now, at the top of the steps above his dehydrated beach, I could only say to Cline, “I hope you’re right.”