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Atmosphere, Biosphere, Climate, Cryosphere, Geosphere, Hydrosphere



"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early."
From: Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Listening to the song The Wreck of the Edumnd Fitzgerald is a poignant reminder of how large and also how potentially dangerous the lakes can be. The Edmund Fitzgerald was lost on Lake Superior, November 10, 1975. The ship was carrying a shipment of iron ore. There are many stories about shipwrecks on the lakes, but the story about the Great Lakes is much larger. The Great Lakes contain one fifth of the world's fresh water and 84 percent of North America's surface fresh water. This amounts to six quadrillion gallons of water. Water entering Lake Superior will stay there for approximately 200 years. Covering more than 94,000 square miles and 10,000 miles of coastline, the Great Lakes border eight states and Canada. Twenty-five million people live in the U. S. Great Lakes Basin.

The lakes are a major source of trade in the area. Since 1959, more than two billion tons of cargo was shipped using the Great Lakes. Iron ore and other mining products make up 40 percent of the cargo. Agricultural products make up an additional 40 percent. The lake region supports forestry, agriculture, commercial fishing and recreation.

With an area this large and so many vested interests, there are bound to be challenges to maintaining a healthy environment. The lakes are home to many species of fish, but are also home to invasive species such as the zebra mussel which has caused billions of dollars in damages. The list of issues goes on and includes water and air pollution, loss of wetlands and water withdrawals. Many issues faced in the area appear to be related to climate change. This list includes the timing and duration of precipitation events, species migration, and patterns of seasons as global temperatures rise.

The Great Lakes contain 21 percent of the world's fresh water. With drought, draining aquifers and water demand for drinking and irrigation, some have proposed diverting or drawing down water to meet these needs. Chicago for example draws 2.4 billion gallons a day from Lake Michigan and diverts treatment water into the Mississippi River. As summer interns at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GERL), your team has been asked to conduct an Earth system science analysis of more water diversions.

Heavy precipitation events can have significant impacts on communities throughout the Great Lakes region. Obvious impacts include flooding, lake level rise and coastal damage. If we look at the numbers of days per year in which there have been extreme precipitation events, a timeline since 1890 shows a steady increase (Kristoviceh, 2011). In the Great Lakes area, most of the heavy events occurred along with cold fronts during the summer and fall. During winter the area experiences lake-effect snow. Your group is working with the Great Lakes Sea Grant Consortium to study the impact of heavy precipitation events. Your Earth system science analysis will assist policy makers in determining what measures, if appropriate, should or could be made to mitigate or adapt to impacts of these events. The scientists are also interested in whether the observed changes are a function of weather or climate.


Date: 7/5/2012

Scenario Images:

Great Lakes
North America. Backlit photograph of the National Geographic society's world globe. Blue and black satellite photo of North America; shows Great Lakes in relation to rest of country. Photographer: D. Norton, GLERL.

Great Lakes Ice
Ice formation in the St. Joseph channel. Lake Michigan EEGLE cruise Feb. 18, 2000 Lake Guardian pre-plume survey. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Freighter traveling in Muskegon Channel. Photo courtesy NOAA.



A NOAA Report: Predicted Impacts of Climate Change (Cycle A)
Module One "presents an overview of predicted climate change impacts in the Great Lakes region, including predicted changes in temperature, storm events, Great Lakes water levels, lake ice cover, and other factors."


A NOAA Web Site Featuring Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab (Cycle A)
Contains NOAA research publications as well as access to data.


Cascading Effects of Climate Change on Great Lakes Water Resources (Cycle A)
An article from the Union of Concerned Scientists, this site contains a schematic depicting the chain of events based on changes to precipitation patterns.


From Great Lakes Integrated Sciences plus Assessments (GLISA) (Cycle A)
GLISA provides accessible information about the climate change issues we face in the Great Lakes region. These materials provide valuable background information for those considering Great Lakes climate.


Recent Trends of Heavy Precipitation in the Great Lakes (Cycle A)
A presentation by Dave Kristovich, Head of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences in the Illinois State Water Survey: "Heavy precipitation events can have important impacts on communities throughout the year. Intense cold-season snowstorms and warm-season extreme flooding events, for example, regularly result in high social and economic losses."


The Science Behind Lake Effect Snow (Cycle A)
A NOAA resource: "Lake-effect snow forms in the winter when cold air masses move over warmer lake waters. As the warm lake water heats the bottom layer of air, lake moisture evaporates into the cold air. Since warm air is lighter and less dense than cold air, it rises and begins to cool. The moisture that evaporates into the air condenses and forms clouds, and snow begins falling." See also: Just What is Lake Effect Snow?


Climate Change Impacts on the Great Lakes Water Levels (Cycle B)
A presentation by Drew Gronewold, NOAA, on water levels as a result of precipitation, runoff, evaporation and human influences such as water withdrawals.


Great Lakes Communities and Ecosystems at Risk (Cycle B)
Contains an executive summary of impacts plus specific links addressing migrating climates and water resources.


Impact of Global Temperature Increase on Lake-Effect Snow. (Cycle B)
This document is a master of arts thesis by Michael Ferian completed at Ohio University. See also this article that appeared in the Journal of Climate: 'Increasing Great Lake-Effect Snowfall during the Twentieth Century: A Regional Response to Global Warming?' This PowerPoint presentation from UCAR is also of value concerning lake-effect snow.


Midwest Impacts from the U.S. Global Change Research Program (Cycle B)
Contains regional key issues.


The Great Lakes An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book (Cycle B)
A six chapter overview of the Great Lakes system and its components from the EPA.


Ten Threats to the Great Lakes (Cycle C)
A resource that may be of value in the classroom. A service of Michigan Radio, the Environment Report is a news service committed to revealing the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people.


Sample Investigations:


How the Lakes Were Formed (Cycle A)
This resource helps students to understand the geological formation of the Great Lakes and how glaciers shaped the Great Lakes basin. See also The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes from the National Film Board of Canada.
Difficulty: beginner


How Will Climate Change Affect a Great Lakes State? (Cycle A)
Produced by the Ohio Sea Grant Consortium. "Students use Google Earth to learn how climate change affects Ohio industries, animals and people, following the steps below. The lesson can be altered to other states by anyone with appropriate technology skills."
Difficulty: beginner


COSEE Great Lakes Curriculum Resources (Cycle B)
A collection of Great Lakes resources approved by COSEE-GL. Activities employ several different media, including the internet, literature supplements, and case study packets. Topics include exotic, or nonindigenous, species, cargo shipping, water movement, biodiversity, and much more.
Difficulty: beginner


Teaching With Great Lakes Data (Cycle B)
This site supported by multiple organizations, to include NOAA, CoSEE, and the Michigan Sea Grant, offer teachers and their students an opportunity to study the great lakes through the use of real data. Signing up for a free account is required.
Difficulty: beginner


Warming Drops Great Lakes to Historic Lows (Cycle B)
Students will construct and explain theories for the decline in water level in the Great Lakes.
Difficulty: beginner


Seasonal Lakes Stratification (Cycle C)
This data tip from Bridge, the Ocean Sciences Education Teacher Resource Center archive, includes a variety of educational sites to visit, and a data exercise on seasonal temperature stratification in Lake Erie based on Great Lakes Forecasting System database data
Difficulty: beginner


Great Lakes Information Network Teachers Corner (Cycle C)
Teacher's Corner includes extensive professionally-reviewed curriculum materials all focused on the Great Lakes and their fisheries. The site is very user friendly and the materials database is easily searched. Curriculum materials are aligned to Michigan standards and in most cases offer a free sample lesson.
Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Populations and ecosystems
        • Diversity and adaptations of organisms
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Populations, resources, and environments
        • Natural hazards
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Interdependence of organisms
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Personal health
        • Personal and community health
        • Population growth
        • Environmental quality
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on solving problems as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • apply a wide variety of strategies to solve problems and adapt the strategies to new situations;
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize connections to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • recognize, use, and learn about mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics.
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context
      • How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface
      The identities and lives of individuals and people are rooted in particular places and in those human constructs called regions. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical and human characteristics of places
      • That people create regions to interpret Earth’s complexity
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      • The characteristics and spatial distribution of ecosystems on Earth’s surface
      People are central to geography in that human activities help shape Earth’s surface, human settlements and structures are part of Earth’s surface, and humans compete for control of Earth’s surface. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      • How physical systems affect human systems
      • The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources
      Knowledge of geography enables people to develop an understanding of the relationships between people, places, and environments over time — that is, of Earth as it was, is, and might be. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students are proficient in the use of technology.
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students evaluate and select new information resources and technological innovations based on the appropriateness for specific tasks.
      • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
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