In August, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the future of the global climate and what people around the world can expect in terms of temperatures, precipitation and more. 

Based on the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, the report concluded that the next 30 years of worsening climate change are irreversible. The IPCC investigation also declared a “code red” situation where the world must act immediately to prevent an imminent global climate disaster. 

But, like most situations, not all regions around the world are created equal in terms of their risk level and potential exposure to the devastating effects of climate change. So where does the Chicago region stand in this delicate situation? And how can residents stay prepared for a possible once-in-a-lifetime climate emergency? 

The Great Lakes

Unlike coastal areas like Portland, Oregon, which experienced a stunning heat wave over the summer that left dozens of people dead, much of the Great Lakes region likely will not see life-threatening heat any time soon thanks to its location in the middle of the continent next to cool and fresh water sources. 

Sunrise over Lake Michigan. (Photo by Mary De Jong)

“If you look at it not from an absolute standpoint, but from a comparative standpoint, I think the Chicago region is a great region to be,” said Mark Wagstaff, Senior Lakefront Engineer for SmithGroup in Chicago. “We do live next to this amazing resource that not only provides us with all of this fresh water, but also acts as a very local air conditioning unit and cools off our summers considerably compared with other places that may not have that.”

In addition to its effectiveness at mitigating temperature changes, Lake Michigan also provides the region with a source of abundant fresh, clean water to use for drinking and cleaning, among other things. According to Debra Shore, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago Commissioner, access to clean and safe water could be one of the major political, social and personal issues of the next century. 

Fresh water has no substitute, and it represents a finite resource that different parts of the world must reuse and conserve. Still, the Great Lakes region is lucky enough to have free and open access to a massive clean water source, at least for the time being. 

“With that good fortune comes an obligation to be careful and caring stewards of this precious resource,” said Shore, who has just been appointed as Midwest Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. “We have to demonstrate that we’re not being wasteful, but I think our access to this fresh water source is a strategic asset, it’s an economic asset, it gives Chicago and the surrounding region the foundation for a robust economy going forward.” 

Though Lake Michigan is vitally useful, its proximity to Evanston exposes residents to some of the risks associated with a changing climate, like increased flooding and water levels that could drastically change within just a few years. Although lake depths have always fluctuated, recent history shows that future highs and lows could go past the limits previously accepted by scientists, and the time period between a record high and a record low could decrease significantly.

According to data collected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Michigan neared all-time low levels in 2013. Less than eight years later, in 2020, the lake rivaled its all-time high. 

“Part of it is to recognize that the lake will rise and fall, and a better course is to try to live with nature and soften those harder edges,” Shore said. “In general, I would say our goal is to try to peel [back] some of that concrete skin that we’ve laid over the landscape by so much paving and building, and try to help the landscape be more resilient in terms of capturing rain where it falls, keeping it out of the sewers, allowing it to infiltrate slowly and recharge our underground aquifers.”

Another issue that the Great Lakes has faced for years is the emergence of potentially toxic algae blooms that can contaminate drinking water and make people sick. Just last month, scientists discovered toxins more potent than cyanide within an algae bloom in Lake Superior. 

An algae bloom at Barker’s Island swimming beach in Superior, Wisconsin, on Sept. 10. (Photo by Hannah Ramage/Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve)

According to Joel Brammeier, President and CEO of Alliance for the Great Lakes, common agricultural pesticides containing phosphorus and nitrogen can get carried into water sources during storms and create an environment ripe for these toxic algae blooms.

“One of the reasons we’re actually really concerned about this is not only is it actually polluting the drinking water of people today,” Brammeier said, “[But] we’re likely to see growth in agriculture in the Midwest, in the Great Lakes region, because of warming temperatures, because of great soil quality and because of the availability of lots of easily accessible water.”

As a result, the agricultural industry needs to find other pesticide alternatives that do not represent such a threat to drinking water, Brammeier said. 

In the Chicago region, Lake Michigan should avoid algae bloom growth because the lake is relatively nutrient-poor in this area, he said. That lack of nutrients is due to the historic reversal of the Chicago River to flow away from the lake instead of into it, which the city accomplished in the late 19th century.

Still, the greater Chicago region gets drinking water from a large swath of southern Lake Michigan, and runoff from rainwater amid worsening storms could bring more chemical nutrients into the lake, Brammeier said. 

“If we don’t actually start farming in a different way that produces clean water, we are going to make these existing problems with pollution much worse,” he said. 

A climate migration?

Because of climate change, higher ocean and lake levels and the increased occurrence of major precipitation events, more and more properties across the nation and the globe are facing the threat of flooding. According to data collected by the First Street Foundation and compiled by The New York Times, a whopping 10.7% of all Cook County properties are at risk of flooding during a major storm.

In the Chicago region specifically, extreme storms and flooding present the greatest challenge of climate change, according to Brammeier. 

With more regions of the globe exposed to issues with flooding due to more frequent and intense rain events, housing has also become more expensive thanks to increased flood insurance costs. According to a recent article published by WBEZ Chicago, “The cost of federal flood insurance is rising for millions of homeowners, threatening to make homes in coastal areas unaffordable for many. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says its new rates better reflect flood risk in a warming climate.” 

As storms, flooding and heat worsen in many areas of the country and access to clean drinking water becomes a more pressing issue for people, both Wagstaff and Shore say the United States could see an internal migration from hot, dry and water-poor areas to water-rich regions. 

“Do we have the human and physical infrastructure in place to support a large climate migration? If we see hundreds of thousands, millions of people move in from the South to further up north into the country, or if we see millions of people migrating around the world because of climate, are we equipped for that? Probably not,” Wagstaff said. 

If a relatively large domestic climate migration is likely in the coming decades, the Chicago region can prepare by investing in public works projects and infrastructure that will save water and protect homes from frequent flooding. Shore, for example, attended the grand opening of a new eco-friendly playground at Horace Mann Academy in Chicago a few weeks ago, where underground water tanks and a permeable playing surface will now capture up to 300,000 gallons of rainwater per storm. Previously, that water would have flowed from the asphalt blacktop into nearby streets, possibly causing basement flooding in homes around the neighborhood. 

Locally in Evanston, the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan Implementation Task Force has the job of putting together similar plans for building a town with an infrastructure designed to withstand the forces of climate change. At its last meeting Oct. 13, the task force discussed how the city can use stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan Act on climate projects like drainage ditches, rain gardens and permeable parking lots that water can infiltrate. 

“The infrastructure around Chicago is able to handle quite a lot of change,” Wagstaff said. “I would rather be treating my drinking water from Lake Michigan than being in Texas or somewhere and taking it out of a river. … I’d rather be in the position of starting where we are.” 

 

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