MTU professor tells Superior’s story of resilience, recovery

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette Nancy Langston explains historical changes within the Lake Superior region and discusses future threats at a forum on Sunday hosted by the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

HOUGHTON — “The story of Lake Superior is that of intensive transformation and rapid industrialization,” said Nancy Langston, professor of environmental history and social sciences at Michigan Tech.

Langston spoke on the topic of “Sustaining Lake Superior” at a Sunday forum at the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

To Langston, a part of the story of Lake Superior is a unified effort to preserve it, and that effort must continue.

“This lake has recovered in many significant ways, because the watershed has recovered,” she said. “So this is really a story of resilience and recovery and a chance that we can continue this resilience and recovery into the future.”

Lake Superior is still recovering from intensive logging, mining and industrialization, and now the impacts of climate change are being examined.

“We’ve come to take these extraordinary species sort of for granted…but they weren’t here for a long time,” Langston said.

As she sees it, the recovery of the past can be continued and re-created.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past, but we’ve also figured out how to restore a lot,” Langston said. “If we did it in the past, we can do it again.”

There are issues on the horizon. Lake Superior is listed as the fastest-warming large lake in the world, and researchers are still working to understand why.

The changes to water temperatures will have a domino effect on the surrounding area and ecosystem.

An intense, visible decline of ice cover is one area of concern.

“There’s a lot of variability, and that’s weather… but on average we’ve seen 70 percent decline in ice cover,” Langston said. “That has a whole set of interconnected effects on fish, on people, on all sorts of aquatic communities.”

If current warming projections become a reality, the character of the Keweenaw Peninsula would undergo significant change, from different tree varieties to types of weather.

While projections indicate the Keweenaw will maintain high snowfall, other regions will not.

The type of snow and weather patterns are also areas of concern. Predictions envision extra heavy or wet snow, more intense storms, and in the short term, larger volumes of snow.

Open water later in winter is a key element in potential changes, as lake effect is most intense before the lake freezes.

The projections for the future aren’t set in stone, Langston explained, but more can be done to keep the Keweenaw pristine for the future after all the work that went into getting it to where it is now.

“We are once again one of the most forested watersheds in the world, and we weren’t for quite a while. They’re very different forests than they used to be, there’s no doubt about that… but it’s still extraordinary that they have returned,” Langston said.