Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Yahara lakes may be half a world apart, but they are connected by an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.
As the world’s largest coral ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef has tremendous cultural value. But this natural icon is under a barrage of threats, including overfishing, coastal development, fertilizer pollution and increasing storms and ocean acidification due to climate change. As Stephen Carpenter and colleagues point out in a new paper published in Science, Australia can build the reef’s resilience and limit long-term damage from climate change through better local controls on fishing, construction and water quality.
Australia’s chance is reflected in our own waters.
The Yahara lakes — Mendota, Monona, Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa — also have tremendous cultural value and face big challenges from a warming climate. The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts anticipates more hot days, heavy rainstorms, floods and droughts for the state. These changes, on top of local ecological concerns such as phosphorus pollution, could put the health of the Yahara lakes on a quickening downward trajectory.
More intense storms could wash torrents of phosphorus and sediment off agricultural and urban lands and into the lakes. Warmer air temperatures will likely mean warmer lake water, which increases the risk of toxic cyanobacteria blooms, otherwise known as blue-green algal blooms. These can close beaches and sicken people and pets.
We, too, have an opportunity to reduce this risk. We can make the lakes more resilient to warming and bigger storms if we focus on how we treat the land surrounding them.
By improving the land’s ability to retain water and sediment, we can slow phosphorus runoff and buffer the lakes against heat-driven algal blooms. With less phosphorus in the lakes, toxic algae would be less reactive to warmer water and less threatening to human health.
Local solutions to build the lakes’ resilience will likely come from a combination of approaches, including new technologies, economic incentives, appropriate government intervention and human values.
Thanks to work by local farmers, governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations and individuals, actions to reduce runoff are already under way — planting cover crops, limiting fertilizer use and controlling manure are among these measures. Future climate challenges are another reason to support these efforts and expand them, especially if conditions become more severe.
Across the world, efforts to moderate climate change should continue, but progress may be slow. Greenhouse gases linger long in the atmosphere, which means we will all have to live with an altered climate.
In the meantime, stewarding our local land and lakes can safeguard them from an unstable climate. We can do things in the Yahara River watershed — and throughout Wisconsin — that will make our communities better able to handle whatever changes the climate has in store. Combating phosphorus pollution and other local threats will increase our ability to cope with climate change.
The future may be uncertain, but we do have some ability to make it a future we’d like to live in. Now is the time to hedge global threats by supporting aggressive local action to protect our valued lakes and the quality of life they afford us.
Jenny Seifert is the science writer/outreach coordinator for the UW-Madison’s Water Sustainability and Climate project; Stephen Carpenter is a professor and the director of UW-Madison’s Center for Limnology.
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