By Sarah Fiorello

By: Adam Czosnyka

Climate Change. What is it? Is it a bad thing? Does the climate usually change? The answer to that last question is yes. We came out of our most recent ice age about 10,000 years ago. When the climate started getting warmer due to natural causes, the glaciers that covered many of the continents began to melt and receded toward the poles over a very long period of time. Throughout this process, magnificent cavities were carved by the ice, and melted water eventually found its way to fill these craters. One significant group of these bodies of water are now known as the Great Lakes. Today, over 40 million people inhabit the Great Lakes Water Basin and depend on the Great Lakes for clean drinking water.

So what is all of this talk about climate change happening again and how does this affect us? Right now, the Earth’s climate is rapidly changing at rates much faster than ever before due to unnatural causes: Humans. The lifestyles humans have been living the past couple of centuries have accounted for countless harmful actions toward the health of our planet and are inducing change at a rate that scientists don’t think the planet and all of its inhabitants can handle. The continent of North America acts as the perfect landscape to paint the picture of how our luxurious lifestyles harm our planet. Since we have records of conditions from the start of our modernization, we can compare how the environment was before and during industrialization in the Great Lakes River Basin, and even try to use the events we have already seen to imagine what might await us in the next couple of centuries.

Let’s now focus in on the Great Lakes region 500 years ago before European settlers began to colonize. Native Americans shared a sacred bond with nature and its inhabitants, specifically the Buffalo. The relationship natives shared with Buffalo was one of mutual respect of the creatures which ensured an abundant and stable wild Buffalo population. Today, many of the lessons we have learned from the Natives have been lost, which is a major factor in our rising contribution to the acceleration of climate change. Evidence of this can be seen in the population of native species present at the time of colonization. The North American Woodland Buffalo subspecies, for example, is the largest native land mammal of North America and used to be plentiful across the Northeastern region of North America until the people inhabiting the area stopped respecting the resources nature provided them and began exploitation by means of hunting for business and sport. This led to a massive decline in the North American Woodland Buffalo species and the decimation of its wild population.

In each of the examples mentioned so far, effects were clearly visible within the coming years. This leaves a whole other category of wrongdoings which take amounts of time much greater than that of a human life to be seen. We are just now realizing a slight increase in the pH of oceans due to pollution in natural habitats and clean water sources from over one hundred years ago. To this day, many chemicals inside our own country remain unregulated in production and disposal, contributing to consequences that won’t be seen by anyone making important decisions right now. These problems will be left to the generations to come and fill their shoes once they are gone.

The contribution of negative effects from the loss of the North American Woodland in their wild environments are much greater than many people think at first. This is because every organism in a natural environment serves an evolutionary purpose and with the absence of just one of the key pieces to the puzzle the result can be monumental. Many species depended on abundant wild Buffalo for a food source, even some humans. Others lived symbiotically together with the Buffalo and depended on shelter in their large depression-shaped habitats in the thick, grassy earth called wallows. Without the Buffalo around to pave the way for the life processes other organisms depend on, many other species will struggle to survive due to a shift in equilibrium. This is where chaos begins.

This one species of Buffalo that has gone extinct is only one of hundreds of North American organisms to go extinct over the last few centuries of colonization and “modernization.” The holes from these extinct species are left behind, not to be filled by the organisms which caused their demise, but rather are left unfixed only to further the destruction of our planet.
In the multiple centuries that we have witnessed this type of neglect to the wellbeing of the environment we inhabit, nothing has changed. We have consistently found new and innovative ways to induce harm on our surroundings. With the magnificent power of global communications, travel, and interactions comes great responsibility, which a miniscule minority of humans truly accept and take on.

As human-kind’s inventions progress, each seem to bring about a new and more menacing threat to the safety of our planet. As people travel internationally across continents, they bring with them much more than they realize. The reason people, animals, and organisms differ in all sorts of ways is because of a difference of origin. One region of developing organisms will receive a certain trait due to the uniquity of its environment. When organisms with these specialized traits are not contained to their place of origin they become known as invasive species and they can lead to catastrophic events such as worldwide pandemics, mass extinction of certain species, and even… you guessed it: climate change.

In 2002, the Emerald Ash Borer was first identified on the continent of North America. This beetle is native to Native to Asia, and when it was transported across continents, it not only left its home, but its predators and regular food sources. Without a natural predator, Ash Borer populations skyrocketed, creating a fire of reproducing beetles which killed exponentially more trees as time proceeded. This single event led to the destruction of tens of millions of ash trees in 30 states of just the United States alone. Think about how much carbon those trees could have taken out of the atmosphere. Instead, millions of organisms lose their habitats, destruction results from falling dead trees, and our carbon emission problem is only worse.

In each of the examples mentioned so far, effects were clearly visible within the coming years. This leaves a whole other category of wrongdoings which take amounts of time much greater than that of a human life to be seen. We are just now realizing a slight increase in the pH of oceans due to pollution in natural habitats and clean water sources from over one hundred years ago. To this day, many chemicals inside our own country remain unregulated in production and disposal, contributing to consequences that won’t be seen by anyone making important decisions right now. These problems will be left to the generations to come and fill their shoes once they are gone.

One chemical still being released into the Great Lakes by the many surrounding power plants are chlorobenzenes. These substances are highly toxic, colorless, flammable, organic compounds which are used in the production of several other chemicals. They are not biodegradable, meaning no matter how long they exist in the environment, they will not break down and will remain there forever. Last year alone, the U.S. produced over 250,000 tons of chlorobenzenes in some form. Although the release of these toxic chemicals into lake deposits only account for a small percentage of the total chlorobenzenes produced, they “are persistent in the aquatic environment, since they are not readily biodegraded, photodegraded, or hydrolyzed,” according to a peer-reviewed article by Barry G. Oliver and Karen D. Nicol. It has been noted that these pollutants do not form great quantities in the water itself, but rather inside of the very organisms which call these lakes home. These harmful substances then enter our bodies when we eat local seafood. This is just the immediate effect we happened to realize as we analyzed the food we put into our body. There are many more unknown effects that these chemicals are producing and will continue to produce that we cannot predict. In 200 years, maybe our great grandchildren will witness the effects of our carelessness.

map of great lakes region

Now think about every harmful action that humans have committed to the ecology of North America between these occurrences. It’s horrifying. None of it can be undone, and for many of these events, we haven’t even seen the end result. The only way to combat this threat to our existence is through universal cooperation as a species across every nation. We have conquered some incredible challenges in our history as humans, but will we come together to solve the biggest problem we have ever faced?

Works Cited

Barry G. Oliver and Karen D. Nicol, “Chlorobenzenes in Sediments, Water, and Selected Fish from Lakes Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.” Environmental Science Technology, vol.16, no. 8 (1982), 532–536. https://doi.org/10.1021/es00102a019.