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The Great Lakes and climate change: More flooding, more heat, worse water

That's according to a new report.

Minnesota, along with the rest of the environmentally vital Great Lakes region, could face more extreme storms, more frequent sweltering days, worsening erosion and poor water quality in the decades ahead.

That's according to a new report from the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which lays out the impact of climate change on the Great Lakes and the communities that surround them.

The big takeaway: The Great Lakes region is warming faster than the rest of the United States. As explains, the mean air temperature in the Great Lakes region rose 1.6 degrees  from 1901-60 and 1985-2016. The mean air temp in rest of the contiguous U.S. went up 1.2 degrees during those time periods.

Why this matters

The Great Lakes contain just over one-fifth of the Earth's entire supply of surface fresh water. Minnesota has more than 250,000 people living in coastal zones, the Great Lakes Commission says, with Lake Superior providing a source of clean (so far) drinking water while driving a $1 billion tourism industry for the area.

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If the overall temperature keeps rising, as it has been, the air will hold more moisture, the Environmental Law and Policy Center's report explains. If that happens, it'll lead to:

  • More frequent, more intense bouts of rain
  • More frequent, more intense bouts of snow along the lakes - though less snow further inland
  • More flooding
  • Impacts on farming due to wetter springs, and a reduced crop yield
  • Increased water damage to homes and infrastructure
  • More soil erosion, particularly in rural areas
  • More frequent heat waves
  • Lower quality drinking water, with high levels of E. Coli for example
  • Less variety in the type of fish in the waters
  • Lower lake levels that affect homes, shipping, marinas and docks

"We cannot take the vast natural resources of the Great Lakes for granted.," the report says. "Scientific analyses clearly show that climate change has already greatly affected the region and that these impacts will continue and expand as the pace of climate change accelerates.

What to do about it

The center includes a list of policy recommendations to slow the effects of climate change and reduce the stress on the Great Lakes. That includes investing in renewable energy,  promoting the use of cleaner cars, helping airlines reduce carbon emissions, reducing agricultural runoff from farming, and building green infrastructure to protect shorelines.

These measures can be taken on at the state level, even if the federal government continues to cast doubt on climate change, the report notes.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz laid out a path for the state to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2050. And thousands of students recently walked out of class to protest the "national government’s failure to take action to stop climate change," as organizers put it.

One climate forecast said if nothing is done to slow climate change, Minnesota could resemble Kansas by 2080.

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