The Great Lakes And Unexpected Consequences Of Human Interventions

9780393355550_300.jpegI was not aware of this book until listening today to its author spend an hour talking about it. And that happened because of a radio program that I listened to during graduate school, which like most radio shows is now available as a podcast. The discussion was all about unintended ecological consequences of what seemed like smart decisions at the time, going back centuries and up to the present day.

It was interesting enough to search for more information about the book. In the process I found a book club that in turn led me to the book review that is just what I was looking for to complement the author interview:

In the oceanic depths of the Great Lakes, life and death swirl like coffee and cream. Growing up on the western shores of Lake Michigan, I knew this instinctively. The lake provided our drinking water and a place to cool off in the summer, but it also occasionally coughed up millions of small dead fish called alewives, which littered the shoreline, giving off an aquarial reek.

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Great Lakes vampires: Lampreys latch on to a brown trout.
 Credit James L. Amos/National Geographic, via Getty Images

As long as the town deemed the water’s bacteria count low enough, we kids would go swimming or fishing (though we weren’t allowed to eat what we caught). Our moms would sit on towels on the pebbled beach, misted with sweat, paging through magazines. “Do you go in?” they would ask one another, with widened eyes and a half-ironic cringe. Oh no, it was much too cold, or too polluted, they inevitably replied. Nevertheless, the lake served as the axis mundi of our little universe; when people gave directions, they were often oriented “toward the lake” or “away from the lake.” The name of our town had “lake” in it; the town next door did too. Both lay within Lake County. We were lake people.

And so in retrospect it seems odd that we gave the lake so little attention, afforded it so little care. When it began to change, radically and alarmingly, few of us even noticed. My sister was the first person I knew who remarked upon it, some time around 2007. Having just moved back to Chicago from Mexico, she had seen Lake Michigan with fresh eyes. “Have you noticed how blue the lake is now?” she asked me one day. I had not. “It’s, like, Caribbean blue,” she said. The next time I went down to the lakeside I noticed what she meant. The lake of my childhood had always vacillated somewhere between a slate blue and the gray found in the seams of an old tennis ball. But suddenly it had taken on a kind of hyperclarity; it sparkled. The lake was so clean, I read online, that passing airplanes could see shipwrecks resting on the lake bottom. Thanks to climate change, the lake was approaching Caribbean temperatures, as well; it hit 80 degrees one recent July, when it would normally be in the high 50s. I remember feeling pleased by this change, but also slightly unsettled, the same way we feel on an unseasonably warm winter’s day. It was too good to be good.

And so it came as a revelation to me to read Dan Egan’s deeply researched and sharply written “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.” Dipping into this book was like opening the secret diary of a mercurial and mysterious parent. I learned that the reason the lake had become so clear was that it had been invaded by a dastardly pair of bivalves — the zebra and quagga mussels — which had hitched a ride on a shipping barge from either the Black or Caspian Seas and then quietly but ceaselessly colonized the lake. They set about cleaning up the water with hyperactive single-mindedness, eventually sucking up 90 percent of the lake’s phytoplankton. The water is now three times clearer than it was in the 1980s. But “this is not the sign of a healthy lake,” Egan warns. “It’s the sign of a lake having the life sucked out of it.” Since the Great Lakes are essentially “one giant, slow-motion river,” the mussels have since spread to every one of the Great Lakes, proliferating “like cancer cells in a bloodstream.”…

Read the whole review here.

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