The Great Lakes Deserve Some R&R

Map showing stressors on the Great Lakes.


Stressed out? Yeah, me too! Work, family, bills, friends, health, holidays. Just one of these I might be able to handle.  But when they all add up…those are the times I really need some R&R.

For the Great Lakes, “R&R” means Reinvestment and Restoration. And given that these lakes provide drinking water for 40 million people and in the U.S. provide 1.5 million jobs and $62 billion in wages, reinvestment and restoration are wise investments.

Over the past three years, two Conservancy colleagues and I had the privilege of working with 19 other scientists to assemble and map data on stressors to the Great Lakes. Stressors include the factors that negatively impact the health of the lakes—pollution, dams, coastal development, warming temperatures and invasive species like zebra mussels, to name just a few.

Led by Drs. David Allan and Sigrid Smith of the University of Michigan and Dr. Pete Mcintyre of the University of Wisconsin, our group mapped 34 stressors in seven broad categories—covering everything from toxics to invasive species and fisheries to climate change (see the full list at We then combined these into a map of “cumulative stress” on the Great Lakes (above). Our research has just been released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While it’s no surprise that the more populated areas of the basin experience the highest stresses (in red on the map), what is surprising is the complexity of the picture. Most areas of the Great Lakes are affected by 10-15 stressors, and the specific combination of stressors varies from place to place. This means that the set of restoration solutions for one place may be completely different than those in another place.

But, we didn’t stop there. We also mapped a number of selected “ecosystem services”—the benefits that society derives from the Great Lakes. We found that the areas that benefit society, such as recreation and fishing, are the very areas that experience the highest cumulative stress.

We don’t exactly know whether the Great Lakes are on the brink of any tipping point. What we do know is that these lakes have proved resilient in the past and with targeted, strategic investments—as informed by data such as our cumulative stress map—our lakes will continue to provide for people and nature well into the future.

Prescription for the Great Lakes

So, where do we go from here? With 34 flavors of stress to attack, where do we start?

Luckily, we found that existing restoration efforts, including the billion-dollar Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, are well targeted directly to those areas of high cumulative stress. Furthermore, The Nature Conservancy recently completed “Conservation Blueprints” for lakes Erie and Michigan that further outline specific actions to conserve our Great Lakes in light of such stresses.

In these blueprints we have found that, overall, the nearshore and open waters, connecting channels, coastal wetlands, islands, and native migratory fish in the lakes face many challenges, but remain in restorable condition. Similarly, coastal areas such as beaches, bluffs, dunes, and shoreline forests are doing very well in some areas and poorly in others. The reports highlight areas that are in great condition and others that harbor very high biodiversity, as well as areas that will need a lot of attention.

More than 1,000 participants across the four lakes helped to develop strategies for tackling these problems, as well as restoring offshore fisheries in two of the lakes. Key strategies include:

  • improving coordination among states, provinces, and federal governments for preventing and detecting invasive species,
  • promoting and expanding the use of compatible development approaches and green infrastructure to reduce storm water runoff and protect our coastal resources,
  • conserving and protecting natural areas in areas of high stress as well as areas of low cumulative stress, and
  • improving the effectiveness of agricultural best management practices for keeping sediments and nutrients on the land.

While the stress on the Great Lakes is indeed high, there are opportunities to both reduce stress loads and restore areas that are suffering. With some careful reinvestment and restoration, I’d like to believe the Great Lakes could stage a comeback. Just like a weary parent at the holidays.

And on that note… I think it’s time for a little R&R, and what better destination than the shores of one of our fabulous Great Lakes!

 Lake Huron at sunset.

[Image 1: Map showing stressors on the Great Lakes. Image source: GLEAM project. Image 2: Lake Huron at sunset. Image source: Jason Whalen]

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


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