A purple sunrise dawns over a shallow bay.
Misery Bay on Lake Superior Dawn comes at Misery Bay on Lake Superior in Alpena County, Michigan. © Ron Leonetti

Stories in the Great Lakes

Climate Change and the Great Lakes

A resilient future within reach.

Across the ages, confronting seemingly insurmountable challenges has led humanity to innovation, collaboration and shifts in mindset that have changed the world for the better. That innate fortitude and creativity is apparent today as we tackle the climate crisis.

Climate change is already taking a significant toll on the Great Lakes region.

Rising temperatures exacerbate algal blooms in Lake Erie, leading to bacteria-polluted drinking water in Toledo, Ohio, potentially causing a number of harmful health conditions for half a million residents.

While families play in Lake Michigan, we continue to see new records set every summer for the hottest days in Chicago, Illinois.

Communities around the Great Lakes in Wisconsin and Michigan are staring down the need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years to repair coastal damage linked to climate change.

While climate change is often attributed to increased long-term temperature averages, it also is linked with increased severity and unpredictable weather—including an increase in severe rainfall events across the Midwest. It is also one of the more visible effects of climate change. For example, research shows that just 10 storms per year drive 70 to 90% of the nutrient runoff into Lake Erie.

View of the low sun over Lake Michigan from inside an ice covered cave.
Ice Shelf on Lake Michigan Winter ice cover on Lake Michigan has been decreasing over the last 40 years. © Stephen Carmickle / TNC Photo Contest 2021
A close up of a hand holding a glass of water full of algae taken from an algal bloom on Lake Erie.
Algae Water from Toledo A glass of water taken from an area of algal bloom on Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio. © Ariana Lindquist
Ice Shelf on Lake Michigan Winter ice cover on Lake Michigan has been decreasing over the last 40 years. © Stephen Carmickle / TNC Photo Contest 2021
Algae Water from Toledo A glass of water taken from an area of algal bloom on Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio. © Ariana Lindquist

We must drastically slow the production of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change and concurrently help the Great Lakes region retain the natural balance needed to endure.

The Nature Conservancy is bringing science, partnership and the tools needed to swiftly advance smart policies, implement transformative projects on the ground and in the water, and compel people to act and lead. We can secure a resilient future for the Great Lakes so that generations to come judge this moment as the inflection point for climate action.

Your Support is Needed

TNC is working with partners to improve resiliency in freshwater ecosystems.

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How We Get There: Reduce Emissions to Slow Change

To turn the tide on climate change, we must rapidly and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that there are many solutions to help us achieve that goal.

Windmills in a green farm field.
Wind Energy It is critical to ensure that alternative energy growth happens in a way that is both productive and limited in its disruption to natural systems. © Jason Whalen/Fauna Creative

Smart Policies for Alternative Energy Production

The states of the Great Lakes region differ from each other in countless ways, yet one commonality is the opportunity for smart alternative energy production. While the deployment of solar and wind energy is on the rise, ensuring that growth happens in a way that is productive while limiting disruption to natural systems is critical. The Great Lakes region is home to a myriad of treasured and rare habitats and species that are core to local cultures and economies, including a $7 billion annual commercial fishery.

When we leverage that momentum and pinpoint the best places in the Great Lakes region for solar and wind development while also prioritizing the needs of nature, we can achieve a balance that sets us up for a future of abundance.

TNC Midwest U.S. Climate & Energy Policy Advisor

We are bringing lessons learned and resources from other states such as the Site Wind Right tool to our work in the Great Lakes region. We aim to help communities speed up the creation of comprehensive plans, access the science needed to thoughtfully site wind and solar developments, and purchase energy that maximizes benefit and reduces risk

To get there, we are establishing relationships with leaders who understand the need for a rapid transition and ensuring policies balance the benefits of renewable energy development with habitat conservation.

Local Roadmaps and Reports Paving a Renewable Future

Aerial view of a solar farm surrounded by trees.
Solar energy farm We can reposition Wisconsin to lead in renewable energy by reworking outdated regulations and fostering collaboration. © Alliant Energy

Wisconsin Renewable Energy Report

Despite being an early leader in the transition to clean energy, nearly half of Wisconsin’s electricity is still generated from coal-fired plants. TNC connected with businesses across the state to learn about their renewable energy programs and plans, the hurdles they face and the opportunities they see. The resulting Wisconsin Renewable Energy Report is helping build motivation toward public-private partnerships. The goal is to accelerate adoption of renewable energy while also supporting economic growth and addressing environmental justice.

River runs under a bridge.
White River The White River as it flows through downtown Indianapolis © Matt Williams/TNC

Indiana's Climate and Energy Future Roadmap

One in five Indiana residents live within 10 miles of a coal-fired electricity plant. Closing those plants will not only eliminate significant quantities of emissions that cause climate change, but it will also provide health benefits to 127,000 at-risk residents including children and the elderly. We developed the Indiana’s Climate and Energy Future roadmap to outline the overwhelming support that exists for action that can improve the lives of people and heal the planet.

Volunteers in green vests planting a tree in a wooded park.
Natural Infrastructure Volunteers plant trees in Burnham Park, Chicago. © Laura Stoecker

Include and Engage Diverse Communities

Dubbed “the most equitable climate law in America,” a bipartisan majority of Illinois lawmakers passed legislation in 2021 designed to help meet the state’s 100% clean energy by 2050 goal. Armed with the first-of-its-kind climate assessment for the state, developed by TNC, we worked behind-the-scenes in support of this legislation which has unique provisions to deliberately engage more diverse communities in the transition to renewable energy.

How We Get There: Help Nature Adapt

A significant part of the climate solution equation is all around us: nature. When we conserve and connect areas that are key for species migration and movement, plant trees and grasses, protect and restore forests, use sustainable farming practices and a host of other actions that help nature, we are pushing back against climate change.

Water plants grow above water under a cloudy sky.
Lucia S. Nash Preserve Yellow pond lily (Nuphar advena) grows at the edge of Snow Lake, one of the few remaining kettle lakes. © Terry Seidel/TNC

Policies for Water Quality Improvement Projects

TNC was an important champion for H2Ohio, a bipartisan effort that secured $172 million for water quality improvement projects in the state. Since its beginning, funded projects such as wetlands protection and restoration are helping improve climate resilience across the state, including in Lake Erie. As weather patterns become erratic because of climate change, wetlands are increasingly important. They absorb and slow water, reducing flooding that can be harmful to species and communities. The initiative also sparked increased public awareness and is catalyzing additional natural climate resilience efforts.

A timber harvester machine harvesting trees.
Timber Processor The processor is able to harvest individually selected trees, resulting in less impact than traditional clear cutting. © Drew Kelly

Sustainable Forestry Practices

The Great Lakes are intrinsically connected to the forests that surround them. Unfortunately, climate change is taking a toll on the region’s forests, and all that rely on them are at risk. That’s why in Michigan, TNC is demonstrating sustainable forestry and climate-smart restoration practices at our Two Hearted River Forest Reserve in the Upper Peninsula, which is part of our statewide efforts to maximize forests for climate resilience.

Engage People Closest to the Land

In Minnesota, TNC is leading a Trees, Water, Soil campaign to increase understanding of the role people and nature can play to slow and avoid some consequences of climate change. Working with partners from high school students and farmers to forest landowners and Indigenous leaders, we are using the power of nature itself to make a difference. For example, efforts to plant native hardwood trees along streams that flow to Lake Michigan is a race against time to save brook trout from warmer waters. These slower-growing trees also store carbon, further abating climate change.

Coldwater Legacy: Keeping Streams Cool and Clear North Shore streams in Minnesota are dependent on healthy and resilient forests to maintain their cool temperatures and crystal clear water. Minnesota's northern forests are also dying off at an unprecedented rate, due to a number of factors.

Reducing emissions through a thoughtful transition to clean energy and helping nature adapt as the climate changes are connected imperatives. For example, research by TNC and others demonstrates that nature-based solutions provide up to 37% of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep global temperature increases under 2 degrees Celsius.

When we bring together bold policies, science-driven projects and people-centric actions, we can meet the moment together and ensure people and nature thrive.