Undercurrents: beneath the obvious

January 10, 2008

The evaporation factor: Warm winter weather + frozen ground = lower lake levels

Filed under: Great Lakes Issues,Lake Levels — nemo @ 12:17 pm

Lake levels continue to decline. This article explains the reasons quite nicely. Notice that average lake temperatures have increased 4 degrees since 1980.

Lake Huron is in a fog, part of a gloomy cycle that’s pushing water levels to record lows, scientists say.

Last week, a winter storm dropped more than a foot of snow over the Great Lakes. Over the weekend, warmer temperatures melted that snow, and much of that water evaporated into the air. The cycle has been playing out for the past 30 years in the Great Lakes, said Cynthia Sellinger, co-author of a paper to be published Tuesday in Environmental Science & Technology, a scientific journal.

Winters have been warmer. Snow doesn’t build up, then seep into the ground and recharge the lakes in the spring.

Instead, warmer winter temperatures melt the snow after it falls, leaving the ground frozen and allowing the snow to evaporate.

“Since 1978, there’s been a long-term decline in precipitation and a long-term increase in evaporation,” said Sellinger, a hydrologist at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lakes Huron and Michigan, which are connected by the Straits of Mackinac, are experiencing the lowest water levels in the Great Lakes this month.

Lake Huron is within 2 inches of its all-time low for January, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lake is 14 inches lower than it was at this time last year.

It’s projected to dip another inch during the next month, as part of its seasonal decline.

Since 1980, when NOAA temperature buoys were installed, the surface water temperature of Lakes Michigan and Huron has increased by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Jay Austin, a researcher at the Large Lakes Observatory, part of the University of Minnesota in Duluth.

“It’s larger compared to what we’ve seen in the atmosphere,” or about twice the rise in global air temperatures attributed to global warming, Austin said.

Lake Superior is the only Great Lake seeing higher levels this January. It’s 6 inches higher than at this time last year. The rest of the lakes are 11-16 inches lower than a year ago.

Part of the reason for Lake Superior’s rise is about 10.5 inches of rainfall in the basin during September and October, right at the lake’s low point, said Keith Kompoltowicz, a meteorologist for the Army Corps in Detroit. [From The Bay City Times]

January 2, 2008

Potential Impacts of Increased Corn Production

Filed under: Ethanol,Great Lakes Issues — nemo @ 4:09 pm

An assessment of the current status and trends of corn-based ethanol production and the potential impacts of increasing corn output in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region to meet that demand are the focus of a research paper released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Great Lakes & Ohio River Division and the Great Lakes Commission. Here’s a quick summary:

Corn acreage for grain production has increased in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region … since 2006, similar to that which is occurring in the United States as a whole. Corn planting projections for the region show nearly 43 million acres for 2007, a 13 percent increase over 2006 figures for harvested acreage … Similarly, the two areas of highest corn production in the region, Illinois and Minnesota, will set new acreage records and are expected to experience record yields this year. These states are followed closely by Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio in total production. Percentage-wise, Ontario, Ohio, and Québec lead the region in the greatest increases in corn production from 2006-2007.

Within the U.S. portion of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region, as of December 2007, 39 ethanol facilities have the capacity to produce up to 2.66 billion gallons of ethanol per year. Assuming this capacity was dedicated in its entirety to corn-based ethanol production, approximately 950 million bushels of corn, or roughly 18 percent of current U.S. corn production in the region, would be required per year. As of December 2007, the construction and/or expansion of 28 facilities was underway which, when completed, will nearly double the annual production capacity for the region’s facilities to 4.8 billion gallons per year. To meet this capacity using only corn grain, more than 1.7 billion bushels of corn per year would be required, or roughly 32 percent of the projected 2007 U.S. corn production in the region.

Since an estimated 3.5 to 6 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced is required by ethanol facilities for the production of ethanol, water use by ethanol facilities must also be considered. Of this water, roughly 90 to 95 percent is lost through cooling towers, wet spent grain shipped locally, and exhaust from the spent grain dryers. Many of the newer facilities under construction … will have larger production capacities of 100 million gallons of ethanol per year or more, requiring 350 to 600 million gallons of water per year (nearly 0.96 to 1.65 million gallons per day), depending on their level of water efficiency and ability to recycle wastewater. Thus, even at the most water- efficient facilities, a significant volume of water is required for the production of ethanol.

Without forethought and a careful, balanced approach to the production of biofuels such as corn-based ethanol, residents within the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region can expect to see profound impacts (both positive and negative) on the region’s economy, environment, and ecosystems. Some of the anticipated less desirable impacts, such as the return to production of highly erodible lands or the introduction of marginal areas to row crop production, could be difficult to reverse. Thus, a continuing trend toward the increased production of corn – fueled by recent political support – could come at some expense to the region’s ecosystem and natural resources.

Source: The Potential Impacts of Increased Corn Production for Ethanol in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Region (pdf) — U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Dec 18, 2007.

December 18, 2007

Food and Fuel Compete for Land

Filed under: Ethanol,Great Lakes Issues — nemo @ 1:23 pm

Ethanol manufacturing uses a tremendous amount of water which is why ethanol has been a topic here, here, and here for so long. If you’re new to the debate start here with 10 Things to Know. Then read this New York Times piece on the rising price of food:

For years, cheap food and feed were taken for granted in the United States.

But now the price of some foods is rising sharply, and from the corridors of Washington to the aisles of neighborhood supermarkets, a blame alert is under way.

Among the favorite targets is ethanol, especially for food manufacturers and livestock farmers who seethe at government mandates for ethanol production. The ethanol boom, they contend, is raising corn prices, driving up the cost of producing dairy products and meat, and causing farmers to plant so much corn as to crowd out other crops.

The results are working their way through the marketplace, in this view, with overall consumer grocery costs up roughly 5 percent in a year and feed costs up more than 20 percent.

Now, with Congress poised to adopt a new mandate that would double the volume of ethanol made from corn, ethanol skeptics say a fateful moment has arrived, with the nation about to commit itself to decades of competition between food and fuel for the use of agricultural land. [From Food and Fuel Compete for Land – New York Times]

I’m not too bothered about the price of corn. It is actually a fairly lousy food source, with low yield of edible bits compared to the volume of the plant. It is not well digested by humans, and it has very little nutritional value, other than the energy value from the sugar content.

The problem is that ethanol subsidies have created an artificial market for corn which is causing agribusiness to convert from farming something that does have some nutritional value to growing feedstock for fuel, This shift in growing has a huge impact on water usage — a 50 million gallon per year ethanol plant would require 265 million gallons of water and reduce our dependancy on oil by only 2.5%.

The problem isn’t ethanol itself, despite its profound drawbacks as a fuel. The problem is the subsidies completely screwing with the market.

December 17, 2007

Zebra Muscles cost a billion bucks

Filed under: Great Lakes Issues,Great Lakes Threats,Invasive Species — nemo @ 10:07 pm

The Columbian (Clark County, Washington) summarizes the efforts and costs associated with zebra muscle clean-up:

The non-native bivalve has proliferated in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River, costing more than $1 billion to remove from clogged irrigation pipes. Scientists believe the filter-feeder has fundamentally altered the environment by devouring zooplankton that forms the bottom of the food chain.

Researchers noted that the rate of zebra mussel expansion in the Midwest has slowed considerably since the mid-1990s. While boat-inspection programs and public education may be playing a role, the scientists at Oregon State hypothesized there might be something else to it.

So they examined calcium levels in the water.

“That’s what they make their shells out of,” said Thom Whittier, a faculty research assistant at Oregon State who wrote the study with three other researchers.

Tabulating water-sampling data from 3,000 river sites across the country, the OSU scientists drew up the first broad-scale map documenting the relative risk of zebra mussel infestation nationwide. They concluded that relatively high calcium concentrations in the water correlated strongly with the presence of the Asian freshwater mussels, while rivers with relatively low concentrations had a low risk of infestation.

December 9, 2007

The latest for thirsty furry friends: bottled water

Filed under: Bottled Water,Canada — nemo @ 6:00 pm

From the CBC News comes this article regarding new marketing avenues opening up for bottled water:

Bottled water, a staple for the two-legged, is now being aimed at the four-legged market.

Aquience, a Charlottetown, Ontario-based company, recently launched Pet Quench, a water it says addresses a critical need for pets, particularly cats, which are prone to urinary disorders. “Cats are not getting enough liquid in their diet, or not drinking,” company president Derrick Walker said.

“One of the areas that it’s designed for is to induce them to want to drink.”The water contains what the label calls “natural attractant” aimed to make dogs and cats want to drink more of the water. It also has aloe and papaya extract intended to help with digestion.

In the early going, Aquience, which is bottled in Ontario, has reached into markets across the country. The product was developed in Charlottetown, in part with a $50,000 grant from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Pet Quench is not alone in the market. It’s part of new range of water and water additives aimed at everything from hamsters to horses.

Canadians spend almost $5 billion a year on their pets. Aquience costs $1.79 for a half litre of water.

The water contains “natural attractants” aimed at making dogs and cats want to drink more of it. Not only is the pet water bottled, it apparently is addictive too.

December 6, 2007

Lake Michigan water levels nearly scrape bottom

Filed under: Great Lakes News,Lake Levels — nemo @ 12:51 pm


Signs are mounting that Lake Michigan’s already-low water levels are taking a turn for the worse. The big lake is a foot lower now than it was this time last year. And on Sunday, its level briefly dipped below a record low, according to federal monitoring data.

Water levels are down in wetlands and rivers, environmental experts say, and the latest decline is more bad news for ships, boats and lake and river marinas already suffering from nine years of sinking levels.

November was especially hard on lakes Michigan and Huron, which geologically are considered one lake. Instead of a normal seasonal drop of 2 inches in November, the lakes dropped 6 inches. For the Lake Michigan-Huron watershed, it was the driest November since 1908, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data. Army Corps hydrologists and engineers blame excessive evaporation caused by cold air sucking moisture from the relatively warm lake.

Carl Woodruff, a hydraulic engineer, said it is unusual when evaporation outpaces the water runoff into the two lakes, which happened last month. As a rule of thumb, the two generally match each other over a year’s time.

Dry weather may be only one reason behind the plunging levels.

More than 90 years of historical water-level data suggest the lakes may fluctuate on a 30-year cycle, going from low to low. Lakes Michigan and Huron were low in the mid-1930s, the mid-1960s and began the latest decline in 1998.

Some of the other Great Lakes, particularly Erie and Ontario, have benefited from tropical storms and hurricanes out of the south that brought rain in recent years, including Katrina, Dennis and Arlene.

[From Lake Michigan water levels nearly scrape bottom – mlive.com]

November 27, 2007

Brief Histories

Filed under: Uncategorized — nemo @ 8:29 pm

I added Brief Histories to the Pages section on the left menu to gather all of the “A Brief History of …” posts onto a single page for easy reference.

November 26, 2007

Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Study – Final Report

The governments of Canada and the United States released the binational study report on November 26, 2007. The GLSLS Study was conducted to evaluate the infrastructure needs of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway system, specifically the engineering, economic and environmental implications of those needs as they pertain to commercial navigation. The study assesses the long-term maintenance and capital requirements to ensure the continuing viability of the system as a safe, efficient, reliable and sustainable component of North America’s transportation infrastructure. [From Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Study]

The study identifies four main observations, each with key considerations that should be taken into account by the Canadian and U.S. governments, and by industry stakeholders, when deciding the Seaway’s future:

  1. The GLSLS system has the potential to alleviate congestion on the road and rail transportation networks as well as at border crossings in the Great Lakes Basin and St. Lawrence River region.
  2. A stronger focus on shortsea shipping would allow the GLSLS system to be more closely integrated with the road and rail transportation systems, while providing shippers with a cost-effective, timely and reliable means to transport goods.
  3. The existing infrastructure of the GLSLS system must be maintained in good operating condition in order to ensure the continued safety, efficiency, reliability and competitiveness of the system.
  4. The long-term health and success of the GLSLS system will depend in part on its sustainability, including the further reduction of negative ecological impacts caused by commercial navigation.

Key considerations regarding point #4 include:

  • The GLSLS system should be managed in a way that prevents the inadvertent introduction and transmission of non-indigenous invasive species and supports the objectives of programs designed to minimize or eliminate their impact.
  • The existing sustainable navigation strategy for the St. Lawrence River could be extended to the Great Lakes Basin.
  • The movement and suspension of sediments caused by shipping or operations related to navigation should be managed by developing a GLSLS system-wide strategy that addresses the many challenges associated with dredged material and looks for beneficial re-use opportunities.
  • Ship emissions should be minimized through the use of new fuels, new technologies or different navigational practices.
  • Islands and narrow channel habitats should be protected from the impacts of vessel wakes.
  • There is a need to improve our understanding of the social, technical and environmental impacts of long-term declines in water levels as related to navigation, and identify mitigation strategies.
  • Improvements should be made to short- and long-term environmental monitoring of mitigation activities.

H/T to Trans-Talk

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