Adapting Wisconsin’s inland lakes to climate change: WRI funds aid discussion, publication

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August 23, 2019

By Jennifer A. Smith

Wisconsin’s abundant inland lakes form a significant part of our state’s identity, economy and how residents and visitors alike relax and have fun.

However, like the Great Lakes that border Wisconsin, inland lakes—of which Wisconsin has more than 15,000—face threats due to climate change. Funding from the University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute (WRI) helped convene a workshop with 48 expert attendees who discussed the latest scientific advances and adaptation strategies for Wisconsin lakes facing climate change.

The workshop took place in January 2018 near Tomahawk, Wisconsin, at Treehaven, a conference facility owned by the UW-Stevens Point. Attendees—a mix of researchers, outreach specialists and natural resource managers—represented 16 organizations and a range of professional disciplines.

Now, the results of that Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts lake adaptation workshop have been distilled into an article in the journal Lake and Reservoir Management.

Jennifer Hauxwell, Associate Director of the UW Aquatic Sciences Center

Said Jennifer Hauxwell, associate director of the University of Wisconsin Aquatic Sciences Center, which houses WRI, “Our mission at the Water Resources Institute is to promote research, education and outreach to effectively confront water resources problems. In this case, we were able to bring people together to help understand the impacts of climate change to 15,000 of Wisconsin’s true water treasures, our inland lakes.”

Hauxwell is one of the journal article’s authors, along with Aquatic Invasive Species Outreach Specialist Tim Campbell. The paper’s lead author is Madeline R. Magee, Great Lakes and Mississippi River Monitoring Coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. At the time of the workshop, Magee was completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the UW-Madison Center for Limnology.

Said Magee, “While lakes can look simple on the surface, the ecology under the water can be complicated. It’s not an easy task to understand how lakes might be affected by climate and develop approaches to reduce those negative impacts. We needed to pull together a variety of perspectives and expertise to develop a holistic approach for managing lakes in response to our changing climate.”

The paper’s 13 authors looked at the big-picture question of how best to understand and adapt to climate impacts on inland lakes by focusing on four key categories: lake levels, water quality, aquatic invasive species and fisheries.

One important takeaway is that there is not a “one size fits all” approach when thinking about lakes and climate change. The effects of climate change may look very different from one lake to another due to a complex interplay of factors.

Some of the factors that scientists have already observed with regard to climate change are a loss of winter ice cover, warming water temperatures, changes in water levels and fish populations and increasingly frequent harmful algal blooms, to name a few examples.

While focusing on what the latest science indicates and best practices for moving forward, the article does not neglect the human dimension of Wisconsin’s climate challenges. As the paper concludes, communities themselves must be agents of change.

Said Hauxwell, “Scientists can help people understand how various aspects of a lake might respond to changes in climate, what to plan for, and what options might minimize impacts. However, it takes community involvement to determine what outcomes are desirable and what actions they are willing to take to achieve those outcomes.”

In addition to the journal article, Magee also developed a “Climate Wisconsin 2050” pamphlet to reach a more general audience. It is available for download online and examines the same broad areas covered in the Lake and Reservoir Management article.