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Climate Change Impacts on Western New York’s Great Lakes

Grasping on to the idea that our Great Lakes and Western New York will be a global lifeboat and a fairy tale climate refuge? Think again. 

Authors: Jill Jedlicka, Executive Director, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper 


Climate change is already here, and protecting and restoring the lakes and our communities is more complex than ever. The landmark UN report calling the present situation a “code red” for humankind was not unexpected, as uncomfortable as the reality must be. 

For decades, our Great Lakes have desperately needed infrastructure investments in antiquated sewers, crumbling drinking water systems, ports, and ecosystems. These investments are starting to increase, but let’s be very honest with ourselves about why. It is not merely coming from a sense of moral obligation to the generations of Great Lakers who have suffered, but more about our political and corporate leaders who are foreshadowing and preparing for a shift of population back to the Great Lakes due to climate change.

Whether you are paying attention or not, our nation (and world) is being decimated by wildfires, extreme hurricanes, deadly heat, simultaneous record droughts and floods, collapsing ice sheets, eroding shorelines, red tides, wildlife die-offs, and displacement of millions of humans. 

But we live in the Great Lakes region, we’re fine! We’ve got an endless supply of fresh water and cooler climate, no problem! We’ve got room to grow our population and with that our economies will grow rapidly, what could possibly be bad about that?  

Here’s a sampling of current and future challenges in the era of climate change:

  • Flooding: Storms are getting more extreme and “flashier,” meaning they have a tendency to rapidly develop and then dump large amounts of precipitation in a short period of time. Many parts of our built environment have not been designed to handle these kinds of storms. Combined with the destruction and filling in of wetlands, greenspaces, and buffer areas that help control stormwater runoff, the end result is more neighborhood flooding, damaged infrastructure and raw sewage flowing into our waterways. 

Lead image: Cayuga Creek flooding, Niagara County, Park Drive & A Street Intersection. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, August 2021.

  • Invasive Species: Our freshwater lakes were already vulnerable to invasive plant and animal life and we currently struggle with over 180 species brought to us through international shipping. Increasing water temperatures will contribute to these invasives reproducing, thriving and threatening our native fish and wildlife populations.
  • Harmful Algal Blooms: Of all the challenges, this is the one that continues to be exacerbated by human activity – combine warmer waters, increased extreme rainfall events that flush an overabundance of nutrients and agricultural fertilizers into our waterways, add a few extra feet of sun penetration into the water column thanks to zebra and quagga mussels that have “cleaned” the lake water, and now you have the perfect recipe for the reproduction and mass blooming of harmful and toxic algae. Anyone want to go for a swim or take a drink of that?
Harmful Algal Bloom in Western Basin of Lake Erie: September 20, 2017 Photo Credit: Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick
  • Loss of Habitat: Since industrialization of our region, 60-70%% of coastal and shoreline habitat has been lost. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper is already designing our restoration projects with a mean high water level 2 feet higher than was standard 10 years ago. The replacement and restoration of these critical habitat and living shorelines is crucial to protecting upland infrastructure and ecosystem health. It is only going to get more complicated and expensive in the era of climate change.
  • Toxic Legacy: We are still struggling with cleaning up a 150+ year toxic legacy, a burden placed on our communities by industry that exploited and poisoned our Great Lakes resource and then disappeared under the veil of bankruptcy. Much of this toxic legacy is co-located along our waterfront and threatens our drinking water. Some clean-up has been successful, but billions of dollars of effort is needed to protect our waterfronts and drinking water from leaching contaminants. An unstable climate and shoreline landscape is making these efforts more expensive and more complicated.
  • Crumbling shorelines: Due to the Great Lakes geography and the prevailing winds, our end of Lake Erie (the eastern half) not only gets pummeled by winter lake effect snow, but similar forces create what is known as a lake seiche. A seiche is a term to describe the lake’s “bathtub effect,” where persistent winds push the water towards our community. In recent years, these are intensifying in strength and frequency. In the last 3 years alone we have seen tens of millions of dollars in damage and destruction along our vulnerable shoreline and breakwalls. This phenomenon is not going away. Combined with the human desire to build up along every inch of available shoreline, we have stolen nature’s ability to mitigate these events, resulting in increased structural damage, increased flooding, and increased cost.
(Centennial Park shoreline collapse [formerly LaSalle Park], Lake Erie/Niagara River, after a lake-seiche event in 2019.)
  • Water levels: Water levels are supposed to go up and down in the Great Lakes, but like everything else associated with climate change, the highs are getting higher and the lows are getting lower. There is no shut-off valve to the three lakes feeding Lake Erie. The levels can be unpredictable and costly to manage on any given year. Combined with increases in extreme weather events, the impacts become that much more damaging.
  • Increased population and industry: We are a region of good neighbors and we willingly welcome new and returning populations to our community, however, with rapid economic and population growth, communities like ours are at risk for gentrification, increased demand on infrastructure that is already crumbling, and a rapid introduction to new water-enhanced businesses or industry that may once again place undue burdens on our Great Lakes ecosystem. We are challenged to keep up and keep ahead so as to not undo the progress we have made and to ensure our entire community continues to thrive.

Whether you want to believe it or not, climate change is our reality. Living in this era will not be an either/or scenario, meaning we no longer say “either we stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, or we just accept it and adapt to changing conditions.” We have to do both, immediately. 

Rather than feeling helpless or being paralyzed to act, here are simple things that average citizens can do to support climate action in the Great Lakes:

  • Call your state and federal elected officials and voice concern and support of the UN’s IPCC report and recommendations, and support policies to regulate and reduce methane and other fossil fuels. These calls are logged and tracked – they really do make a difference!
  • Support local efforts to preserve, protect and naturalize our threatened Great Lakes shorelines. Local/municipal elected officials hold tremendous decision making power on how their communities are developed or not – engage in the public process.
  • Reduce personal usage and over-application of fertilizers and pesticides that contribute to harmful algal blooms – everything that is applied to the land ends up in our drinking water supply.
  • Explore usage of multi-modal options and transportation alternative: walk, bike, metro, train, fuel efficient and electric vehicles. Consumer buying power asserts pressure on the market and can influence long-term investments in infrastructure.
  • Advocate for local zoning efforts to protect our living infrastructure – headwater forests, wetlands, shorelines, etc. These systems support our own health and the integrity of the Great Lakes system. It’s all connected.

Climate change is real and it is happening, we know the drivers and we know the actions and solutions that are within our ability to implement. Our health, our communities, our economies, and our very survival depend on citizen action, now.

Written by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper is a community-based non-profit organization that protects and restores our waters, surrounding ecosystems, and public access in the Niagara River Watershed for the benefit of current and future generations. New York is a Great Lakes State, and for over 30 years, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper has been the guardian of Western New York's fresh water. The organization works year-round to protect clean water, restore the health of ecosystems, connect people to the water and inspire sustainable economic growth and community engagement. For more information on Waterkeeper's programs, projects and positions, visit www.bnwaterkeeper.org.

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