As the consequences of climate change begin to reveal themselves, it’s clear that some parts of the world will fare better than others. Many are questioning which regions will win out in the age of increasing temperatures, and the state of Michigan is starting to gain attention.
In contrast to the rest of the United States, an analysis by Popular Science determined that the dual peninsulas will dodge most of the havoc caused by rising sea levels, erratic tornados, wildfires, and extreme heat.
Compound this with the fact that Michigan sits on 21 percent of the world’s freshwater supply (a full 84% of North America’s surface water!), and you can start to see the appeal of moving to the wolverine state if climate change is a concern.
However, Michigan’s future as a climate change winner isn’t cemented just yet. As with the rest of the world, the Great Lakes will undergo unprecedented challenges in the coming decades, and the ways these challenges are handled will shape the region’s economy going forward.
Will Michigan “Win” Climate Change?
While anyone who’s survived a Michigan winter might think there could be a silver lining to warmer weather within the state, climate change will have some unexpected consequences. Michigan, especially the upper peninsula, is expected to get warmer and wetter. This will likely lead to more inland flooding, crazier winter storms, and increasingly unpredictable conditions for growing crops.
The state is second only to California regarding agricultural diversity, and much of this bounty could be threatened by changing weather patterns. For example, inconsistent winters will be especially devastating to the state’s fruit production, as early thaws and late freezes can damage blossoms and destroy a crop before it even forms.
Even so, some parts of the state may reap the rewards from warmer temperatures for agriculture. Michigan grape growers a prime example, as they are already finding they can cultivate more varieties than in previous decades, as hotter summer temps allow for a longer ripening time for the grapes.
But any conversation about Michigan’s climate future would be remiss not to address the impacts of a warmer world on the state’s most valuable resource—its freshwater supply.
The Future of Fresh Water
While today’s wars are frequently fought over nonrenewable resources like oil, tomorrow’s battles will likely rage around water access. Freshwater shortages are already on the rise, and many US cities are dealing with crippling droughts that threaten even their drinking water.
The problems will worsen exponentially as warming temperatures and erratic weather patterns reduce snowpacks across the world’s mountain ranges and consequently shrink the rivers that rely on them.
Increasingly, inland lakes like the Great Lakes will become an essential water source. This leads some to envision Michigan becoming the “Saudi Arabia of water”—a global powerhouse growing rich from a monopoly on an increasingly scarce resource.
However, Michigan’s future as a freshwater magnate may be in jeopardy, especially if we take the lessons from the consequences of exploiting another inland lake into account: the Aral Sea.
The Aral Sea: A Case Study of Water Scarcity
Located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea once commanded the title of the world’s fourth-largest inland sea. Today, however, the water that remains is a pale remnant of its past grandeur.
The problems started once the lake began to be viewed as a commodity. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union diverted water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate cotton and other crops throughout the arid region. This effectively cut off the lake’s primary water supply, and it began to shrink dramatically.
Within one generation, the lake dried up over 90 percent.
Today, you can stand in the middle of what once was the bottom of the Aral Sea and see nothing but sand in every direction. This loss of water has devastated the region ecologically, almost beyond comprehension. Desertification has decimated plant and animal populations, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, as winds now whip up sands that once sat under 45 feet of water.
The Great Lakes Compact for Water Security
It’s likely too late to turn back the clock on the Aral Sea, and many fear a similar fate will someday befall the Great Lakes. However, Michigan’s freshwater supply has protections in place never afforded to the Aral Sea through legislature known as the Great Lakes Compact.
Made law in 2008, the Great Lakes Compact regulates water use throughout all five Great Lakes (Lake Superior, Huron, Ontario, Erie, and Michigan) by their bordering eight states, plus Ontario and Quebec. Its goal? Keep the water within the region.
At its core, the Compact prohibits new or increased diversions of Great Lakes water outside of the communities covered by it. Any new water withdrawal projects must meet rigorous standards, and each state within the Compact needs to disclose annual water use reports and develop water conservation plans for long-term sustainability.
Many consider the Compact to be the most significant public water policy achievement in history. To date, it’s already stopped attempts to siphon lake water to dry western states.
But, now past its tenth anniversary, this Compact is starting to fight some pushback from places that find it unfair that Michigan and surrounding regions can restrict access to such a valuable resource. Some wonder if it can stand up to future pressures as wars for freshwater start to get heated or whether an executive order from the federal government could literally open the floodgates for broader access to the Great Lakes water.
The Colorado River Compact lends some reason for concern. Signed in 1922 at a time of abundant water, the Compact now faces intense pressure that much of the region it affects is in drought. The growing public support for these changes shows that even seemingly watertight conservation documents can fall apart as the world becomes desperate for more water.
Preserving Michigan’s Freshwater for Our Collective Future
The water within the Great Lakes is protected—for now. This alone sets Michigan up to be a serious contender for the most prosperous state in a world rocked by climate change. But as things stand today, there are far too many unknowns to determine what the future holds for this midwest state.
What we can say for certain is that climate change will affect all of our lives in unprecedented ways. The sooner we acknowledge this and start preparing for it, the better our chances are of protecting both ourselves and the planet from the worst of its effects.