This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
In Taiwan, a sharp drought is forcing the tech industry to prepare for water rationing. Taiwan is one of the world’s top manufacturing sites for the silicon chips that power everything from computers to cars to mobile phones. Nikkei Asia reports that the Taiwanese government has asked certain cities with manufacturing centers to cut water use by 11 percent due to declining reservoir levels. One of the largest chipmakers on the island is TSMC. The company recycles about 85 percent of its water, but it still needs an adequate supply for cleaning its chips. TSMC started to truck in water as a precaution, in case the reservoirs continue to decline. The water restrictions come at a time of extremely high global demand for computer chips – during the pandemic, electronics are increasingly desirable.
In research news, a new report from the World Wildlife Fund finds that nearly a third of global freshwater fish populations are endangered. The near mass extinction of freshwater fish has a number of causes, such as damming rivers, draining wetlands, and over-extracting water. Other factors in the crisis are water pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, and climate change. The report calls on world leaders to set policies to improve rivers, lakes, and wetlands and reverse what it describes as “decades of decline in freshwater fish populations.”
This week, Circle of Blue looks at whether Michigan is prepared for an era of climate change.
Over three decades ago, researchers at the University of Michigan began to explore climate change from the ground up. Intrigued by warming winters, they began in 1989 to formally measure changes in the geographical distribution of plants and animals in the dense pine and hardwood forests of northern Michigan.
The study was completed in 1991, and it was heralded as significant in understanding the effects of global warming on living creatures. Today, this first-of-its-kind analysis is a prescient preview to questions gaining relevance for human migration: will fierce meteorological turbulence cause people to move — away from danger and toward safety? Will people stay or will they go?
These questions are a focal point in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where the American Society of Adaptation Professionals is leading the development of scientific and analytical tools for anticipating human migration. ASAP, as it’s known, is a group of resilience scholars and practitioners collaborating with Ann Arbor, the National League of Cities, Florida State University, and the state of New York. Their goal is to develop the first scientific models for anticipating economic and population shifts under changing climate conditions. ASAP has been working on the issue, with an eye on migration in the Great Lakes region.
ASAP launched a project last year that builds upon the well-documented damage that climate disruption is causing in the region. It’s raising funds and convening researchers who anticipate that ecological benefits will attract millions of new residents to the Great Lakes and reverse decades of slow population growth. Those attractive conditions include warming winters, ample reserves of fresh water, and forests that are less prone to wildfire.
ASAP’s project aims to induce the next logical phase of climate research: whether meteorological disruption will not merely force people out of their homes, but also compel them to move away, perhaps to the Great Lakes. Beth Gibbons is ASAP’s executive director. She told Circle of Blue “It’s too tantalizing to not ask the question. How could we not be a climate haven when you watch the world and the nation suffer these consequences? But we don’t have the science to prove it. Can you actually demonstrate it?”
The ASAP-funded research is founded on the sort of provocative projections that need to be examined in a century of uncertainty. To what extent will people pick up and move because of supercharged storms, drought, coastal floods, heat, and plagues pushing them away from rising seas, western wildfires, and the drying Southwest? And on the other side of the migration ledger, will warmth, water and woods pull people toward the comparative safety of the Great Lakes states?
Then comes the next big question. If climate disruption influences human migration, how will receiving communities respond? The science of adaptation is in its infancy. Answers will take years to develop. But the scientists involved say their work will offer governments and businesses trustworthy intel on who’s coming, and how to prepare for their arrival.
The researchers have taken guidance from the Democratic Party’s Green New Deal, and are motivated by principles of social inclusion and economic opportunity. They want to make sure that everyone in receiving communities has a fair chance to participate. The intent, in ASAP’s words, is to “introduce a new narrative around climate change that focuses on potential benefits rather than negative impacts and risk.”
Gibbons and her colleagues began their work on a solid foundation of climate science that has formed a consensus on the ecological effects in the Great Lakes region. Scientific studies document a 2-degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperature since 1900, making the region among the fastest warming places on the continent. According to the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments, a NOAA-funded center in Ann Arbor, regional temperatures will increase by roughly 4 to 11 degrees by 2100.
Warmer weather is producing more atmospheric moisture. A recent study by the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, referencing work by 18 leading climate scientists, found that from 1901 to 2015, annual precipitation in the Great Lakes region increased by almost 10 percent. That’s more than double the 4 percent rise for the nation as a whole. Rains are coming as dangerously large storms, and their frequency is changing. The scientists expect wetter winters and springs, and much dryer summers.
Surging storms are overwhelming obsolete wastewater treatment plants and stormwater drainage networks, causing beach closures and unsightly, dangerous algae blooms. In 2018, heavy rains caused a flash flood in the Upper Peninsula, wiping out major roads. Last May, after days of drenching rain, a 96-year-old dam in poor condition breached near Midland, triggering a flood that demolished 50 homes, damaged thousands of buildings, and caused $200 million in destruction.
The measurable damage in Michigan and its neighboring states is worrisome. But it is mild compared to what’s happening in other regions. The Camp Fire, for instance, which blazed through northern California in November 2018, killed 86 people, and caused over $16 billion in economic losses. Still, determining the migration magnetism of Michigan and the other Great Lakes states requires a new discipline that unites mature climate science with cutting-edge social science.
Demographers and geographers are certain that climate disruption will force people to move. Studies show that, as of a decade ago, 123 million people in the United States, or 39 percent of the total population, lived in coastal communities. Matt Hauer, a sociologist at Florida State University and an active member of ASAP, studied this issue a few years ago and concluded that by the end of this century, sea level rise alone could displace 13 million people, almost half of them from Florida.
Will Michigan and the Great Lakes be a destination for any of these displaced people? Maybe. And maybe not.
Available evidence suggests the Great Lakes will be among the most ecologically attractive areas in North America. The Rhodium Group, a New York-based research consultancy, prepared a study last summer for the New York Times and ProPublica, and in general, it showed that by the end of the century the Great Lakes states are expected to be among the safest regions of the country. Key factors are moderate temperatures and access to fresh water.
Will climate change really reverse decades of slow or negative population growth in Michigan and the Upper Midwest? Every year since 2000, the annual United Van Lines national moving study identified Michigan and its neighbors as the top region for losing residents to other states.
But preparation for that projected growth is already underway. Whether they are large or small, climate-related responses are complex, expensive, and prolonged. The Detroit stormwater drainage network began in 1977 with a federal order. It took four decades to build, and cost over $1 billion.
Smaller projects aren’t much easier. High water levels and thinner ice on Lake Superior, for example, produced huge winter waves that reduced Marquette’s mile-long Lakeshore Boulevard to rubble. Repairs involved moving the road 300 feet inland and converting more than 30 acres of city-owned property into a combination public park and natural buffer zone to absorb the lake’s energy. Though the process sounds simple, but in practice, it was not, according to Tyler Penrod of Superior Watershed Partnership, the local conservation group that helped to lead the project. Marquette’s new road was built last year, and this summer the shoreline buffer and park will be planted in native species of grass and trees. The $12 million project took 12 years of public discussion, community meetings, engineering, design, fundraising, and construction.
The Marquette project highlights the need for a knowledgable and nimble response to climate change around the Great Lakes. The forces of nature are uncompromising as they realign, with heat, hurricanes, droughts, fires, floods, tornados, earthquakes and plagues. If anything is predictable about the fierce and frightening era that we face, it is this: that climate disruption will force the Great Lakes states to shake off the rust and retool their regional management for the changes and chances coming their way.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.