Global Warming Affects World’s Largest Freshwater Lake

Anthony Iarrapino

According to an April 2008 National Science Foundation press release discussing the findings of a Russian/American scientific collaboration, even the world’s largest freshwater lake–Siberia’s Lake Baikal–is feeling the effects of a changing climate and not in a good way.  Drawing on sixty years worth of data collected under grueling weather conditions (negative 50!) throughout the tumult of 20th century Russia, researchers document long-term warming trends that are changing the lake’s pristine waters and unique habitat. We’re talking about global warming affecting the health of a 25-million year-old lake that contains 20% of the world’s fresh water and 2500 plant and animal species that make their home there but nowhere else.

Global climate change threatens the pristine waters of Siberia's Lake Baikal--the world's largest freshwater lake

Global climate change threatens the pristine waters of Siberia’s Lake Baikal–the world’s largest freshwater lake. That’s bad news for much smaller and less-resilient lakes like Lake Champlain. (Image source National Science Foundation, Nicholas Rodenhouse)

Closer to home, CLF has been making the case that global climate change is aggravating pollution and food web problems in Lake Champlain–one of the ten largest fresh water lakes in the United States.

For decades, many agencies of the United States government including the Environmental Protection Agency have produced studies warning that global climate change will likely make water pollution problems worse because we can expect:

  • “warming water temperatures to change contaminant concentrations in water and alter aquatic system uses”
  • “new patterns of rainfall and snowfall to alter water supply for drinking and other uses leading to changes in pollution levels in aquatic systems, and” (editor’s note–this summer sure seems like we’re seeing a new rainfall pattern in New England)
  • “more intense storms to threaten water infrastructure and increase polluted stormwater runoff”

–EPA National Water Program Strategy Response to Climate Change

The Lake Baikal study is further confirmation that global warming and water quality issues are deeply intertwined.  It should serve as a wake-up call to government officials charged with cleaning up and preventing pollution because “[t]his lake was expected to be among those most resistant to climate change, due to its tremendous volume and unique water circulation.” If climate change is affecting Baikal, it’s certainly affecting Lake Champlain and other freshwater bodies throughout New England (not to mention the major impacts on our Oceans).

While we must do all we can to slow down and reverse the worst of what global climate change will bring–an effort CLF is leading in New England–it’s long past time to start factoring the reality of ongoing climate change into predictions about water pollution and decisions about pollution prevention and cleanup.

EPA had that chance when it reviewed and approved Vermont’s proposed phosphorus pollution cleanup target–or Total Maximum Daily Load– for Lake Champlain in 2002.  It had plenty of its own research that could have and should have shaped important decisions regarding:

  • the amount of pollution reduction needed
  • the likely effectiveness of different proposed pollution cleanup activities
  • the likely cost of cleanup and prevention activities

Despite all the global climate change studies EPA and the U.S. Government had created with your tax money–EPA failed entirely to factor climate change into the water quality equation for Lake Champlain. That’s why CLF has filed a lawsuit in federal court to hold EPA accountable for this failure before it’s too late for Lake Champlain.  What good is scientific research if you don’t use it to shape decisions in the real world?  Click here to read a copy of the complaint and stay tuned for updates as the case moves forward.

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