An upcoming flood: is Marquette prepared for the upcoming effects of climate change?

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Andrew Lorinser

Houghton experienced heavy flooding last Father’s Day. The destruction of which was so severe it prompted the governor to declare a state of disaster for the Copper Country. Marquette City officials and environmental groups are worried Marquette isn’t prepared for this type of event, which may be inevitable. The problem is being linked to human-caused climate change. Local climatologist John Lenters metaphorically described climate change similar to a flood.

“[Climate change] is a slow-moving train that’s really hard to stop,” Lenters said. “Global and U.S. policies right now are embarrassingly inadequate for dealing with the problem. Locally, we need to adapt.”

Last Tuesday, Lenters presented decades of research during the Marquette Maritime Museum’s “History on Tap” series at the Ore Dock. The presentation “The Ever-Changing Climate of the Great Lakes” focused on observable climate data and specific effects to the Great Lakes region.

Although a strong proponent of renewable energy, he said it doesn’t prevent immediate problems. Lenters said Marquette will need to prepare for living in a climate like southern Wisconsin in 30 years, a region 10 degrees warmer with more humidity and rainfall. As residents become accustomed and dependent upon the unique climate of a coastal city, this change has inherent problems, like flooding.

“For better or worse, we’ll need to change with the climate,” Lenters said.

Lenters echoed the sentiments expressed at a February City of Marquette work session by Commissioner Jennifer Hill. The work session hoped to address Lake Superior’s destruction to Lakeshore Boulevard. Hill warned of implementing a “Band-Aid” fix to the beloved street in lieu of preparing the rest of the city for upcoming spring floods.

“Our infrastructure was built for a 100-year storm event. Because we know we’re going to have more intense rainfall, there’s going to come a point where something is going to get overrun,” Hill said. “Everything is going to be more intense, like this snow. Hopefully, we’ll have a slow melt. If we don’t, we could be really challenged.”

The National Weather Service described Houghton’s 2018 flash floods as “historic” devastation. Dozens of streets were washed away, and 60 sinkholes were reported. A 12-year-old boy lost his life after being injured in a flooded basement. Nearby, in northern Wisconsin, the same widespread Father’s Day flooding caused the death of two others. Clean up costs soared into the millions.

By the end of this spring, forecasts suggest Marquette could receive approximately 25 feet of snow. Over six feet of snow depth is currently on the ground. Hill says this increase to lake levels contributes to the awesome power of water. Erosion and flooding are risks. In addition, climate change causes more intense rainfalls; wetter wets, and dryer dries. Officials and researchers are also linking shoreline destruction of the Lake Superior coast to more frequent and intense storms.

The U.P. is no stranger to harsh weather, but Lenters said people mistake snow and ice as evidence to dispute scientific agreement on the existence of climate change. He acknowledges natural changes caused by solar activity and geography, but makes important distinctions between weather, seasons and climate. Lenters said humans are more easily adapted to natural climate change because it happens over a longer period of time.

Despite local weather, scientists like Lenters are adamant the earth is warming at a prolific rate. According to Lenters — and 100 years of scientific data — the climate is changing faster than ever before, and humans are the cause.

Growing research suggests cold snaps may be the effect of a wobbly jet stream, Lenters said. Marquette, experiencing a polar vortex, may be the result of a disturbance caused by a warming Arctic. The Great Lakes region can get periodically colder even as the Earth warms, possibly because of it, but the science on polar vortex and the jet stream isn’t conclusive yet.

However, there is conclusive data that surface water temperatures and lake levels are on the rise. U.P. snow storms intensify by more moisture in the atmosphere, and most researchers believe the excess is caused by burning fossil fuels, agriculture waste, and deforestation. The U.P. is a unique place to observe this human-caused effect, Lenters added.

“The weather, climate, and seasons on The Great Lakes are super cool,” Lenters said. “They’re unique. You don’t find this stuff anywhere on Earth. But, there’s also a context. There’s a lot of things we ought to appreciate. We also need to appreciate the fact that it isn’t always going to be this way. We need to adapt and prepare.”

Municipalities are beginning to discuss adaptation and mitigation policies, such as re-engineering fragile coastlines, like Lakeshore Blvd., and hope it isn’t too late to prevent emergencies.

Carl Lindquist, executive director of Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP), presented a plan to the City of Marquette to address erosion damage on Lakeshore Blvd. after being awarded a $2.5 million Coastal Resiliency grant. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant is primarily for coastal resilience and adds a variety of restoration to coastal habitat, dune and swales, native tree/shrub and beaches on this decimated stretch of road. The grant would create approximately 28 acres of public green space. Commissioner Hill has not made up her mind on the project.

It’s part of a $5.5 to $11 million project, planned out in multiple phases aimed to mitigate shoreline erosion. The SWP, a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental initiatives, also sponsors the Maritime Museum’s ‘History on Tap’ series.

“The SWP is working throughout the U.P. to help communities adapt to more frequent and more intense storm events such as the flooding in Houghton and the record-setting waves that claimed two lives and closed down Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette,” Lindquist said.

In addition to the SWP’s Great Lakes Conservation Corps that helps communities build resiliency, the organization will launch the Disaster Response Corps to help communities respond to — and clean-up after — more common extreme weather events.

“The improvements to our climate from renewable energy are hundreds of years off,” Lenters said. “Today, we need to mitigate, be more resilient and adapt to some of these things like the Houghton storm. It’s only a matter of time before Marquette gets a Houghton-like event.”