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Making a Great Lake Superior

Will Steger and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty answer reporters' questions.

Polar Explorer Will Steger and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty answer reporters' questions about global warming at a news conference during the "Making a Great Lake Superior 2007" Conference.

The "Making a Great Lake Superior 2007" Conference started with a bang and smoke, or more precisely, the throb of drumming and an Ojibwe pipe ceremony. Designed to increase collaboration among people and organizations that are invested in Lake Superior's well-being, the conference exceeded organizers' expectations with 450 attendees. "Making a Great Lake Superior," which spanned the last three days of October in Duluth, Minn., attracted scientists, government officials, natural resource managers, educators, the media, and citizens from around Lake Superior.

"We're incredibly pleased with the momentum this conference generated," said Jesse Schomberg, Minnesota Sea Grant's coastal communities educator, who took a major role in organizing the conference on behalf of the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network and with the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Liz LaPlante and Janet Keough), Environment Canada (John Marsden), and others. "The feedback has been terrific. A lot of important, useful, and diverse information about Lake Superior was exchanged."

The conference focused on 12 priorities including human health, invasive species, Areas of Concern, and fisheries. Climate change and the most recent Lake Superior research findings grabbed headlines due to their emphasis during the conference and two media briefings. During one briefing, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty stood beside polar explorer Will Steger to announce their plans to tour the state together talking about global climate change's impacts and advocating for solutions.

In the other briefing, three Lake Superior experts gave reporters sweeping overviews of contaminants, fisheries, and research opportunities before hustling across the hall to deliver a more in-depth address to a full audience of conference attendees. Deb Swackhamer, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Minnesota said, "I'm going to tell a story about the ghosts of contaminants past." After talking about lingering legacy pollutants like PCBs, DDT, and toxaphene, she said that the impacts of today's chemicals are harder to see and measure, which makes studying them more challenging.

Families fly kites made from homemade materials off the deck of the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. The event was one of several free pre-conference opportunities open to the public.

Families fly kites made from homemade materials off the deck of the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. The event was one of several free pre-conference opportunities open to the public.

Mark Ebener, fishery assessment biologist with the Inter-Tribal Fisheries and Assessment Program, told reporters that fish, especially whitefish and lake herring (cisco), are thriving in Lake Superior. He called it a "siscowet lake, not a lean trout lake" despite noting that it probably contains more lake trout now than it did in the 1920s -- the heyday of the trout fishery.

Carl Richards, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Continent Ecology Division, faced the press to describe how advances in technology, like robotic sensors, have significantly changed the way research is conducted. "We can move beyond educated guesses," he commented. "The types of questions we can ask have changed, and how we look at questions has changed."

Several facets of the three-day conference broke the confines of tradition. One was the deliberate effort to mix science, management, policy, and education perspectives. Another was the emphasis put on "greening" the meeting and the venue. Conference organizers sought to reduce the resources required to transport, feed, and inform participants. The Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center staff served local and when possible, organic, food; recycling and composting continued as habit. After calculating the amount of carbon consumed beyond the daily norm for 450 people, the conference organizers intend to purchase 75 tons of carbon credits. The credits will go toward alternative energy projects including a solar array, wind turbines, and methane production from dairy farms and wastewater treatment plants. This $900 offset should push the conference beyond carbon neutral to carbon negative.

Several participants even won awards for their efforts to attend the conference in a sustainable manner.

Carri Lohse-Hanson snips a sample of Minnesota Sea Grant Editor Sharon Moen's hair for mercury testing.

Carri Lohse-Hanson snips a sample of Minnesota Sea Grant Editor Sharon Moen's hair for mercury testing.

Small Footprint Award (for farthest sustainable modes of travel)

  • John Jereczek, Roller-skied 5 miles
  • Julene Boe, Walked 1 block (judges erred thinking "1" meant "1 mile")
  • Matt Hudson, Biked 140 miles round trip

Reuse Award (for inventive reuse of nametags)

  • Marnie Chauvin
  • Ann McCammon-Soltis
  • Gary Gulezian
  • Carri Lohse-Hanson

During the ceremony, the Lake Superior Binational Program also honored Jake Vander Wal from Thunder Bay, Ont., with a Lifetime Achievement Award and acknowledged their Environmental Stewardship Award recipients.

In addition to an art exhibition, vendor booths, poster and oral presentations, and think-tank sessions on topics such as research directions and management issues, 30 conference-goers left with an estimate of their mercury load. In exchange for a chunk of hair and information on the number of fish meals eaten per month, Carri Lohse-Hanson of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showed that people who consume more fish tend to have higher concentrations of mercury in their hair, which is consistent with more scientific studies.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reports that 30 conference participants, who consumed an average of 4.3 fish meals per month, had an average of 0.45 parts per million (ppm) of mercury in their hair. Although the health threshold for mercury levels is debated, the U.S. EPA sets the bar at 11 ppm.

The consensus of the presenters and attendees seems to be that people need to remain vigilant about protecting Lake Superior from the consequences of coastal development, invasive species, and climate change.

"I feel that people left the conference with a new energy and new sense of urgency," said Schomberg. "Achieving our regional -- let alone global, environmental, and economic goals -- requires both."

Visit the conference Web site (www.seagrant.umn.edu/superior2007) in the coming months to find out what participants had to say about their experience at the "Making a Great Lake Superior" Conference.

Climate Change Teaser

We can be the headwaters of the climate change debate as well as headwaters of the Great Lakes. We're here with the rock stars and Paul Reveres of climate change. Now is the time for us to roll up our sleeves and get busy. Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minn.

The "Making a Great Lake Superior 2007" Conference involved over six hours of climate change presentations and discussions. Look for a distilled version of what all the talking was about in the next issue of the Seiche. Until then, consider that some of the most substantial evidence that the Earth's climate is changing comes from research in the Lake Superior Basin.

  • Lake Superior's average winter ice cover is 50 percent smaller than it was 100 years ago.
  • Lake Superior's summer surface water has warmed almost twice as fast as the average air temperature.
  • Wind speeds in the middle of Lake Superior have risen 25 percent over the last 25 years.

Superior Conference Quotes

  • I reject the notion that efforts to help the environment will hurt the economy. I don't accept the premise. - Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minn.
  • I've had bad luck with ice shelves. Every one I've been on has collapsed. - Will Steger, Polar Explorer
  • The lake's original invasive species is still a problem…that would be us. We are still the worst enemy of the aquatic environment. - Mark Ebener, Inter-Tribal Fisheries and Assessment Program
  • I would rename this conference, "Keeping a Great Lake Superior." - Deb Swackhamer, interim director of the Institute on the Environment, University of Minn.
  • Extreme weather is storm porn. It's photogenic, gripping, it makes the news and the media can be there before, during, and after. - Dave Phillips, senior meteorologist, Environment Canada
  • We like to say we're in the perpetuity business. - Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
  • To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, we need to build a water ethic. - Richard Stewart, director of the Transportation and Logistics Research Center, University of Wisc.
  • It's important to be an eco-municipality, but far more important to act like one. - Larry McDonald, Mayor of Bayfield, Wisc.

By Sharon Moen
December 2007

Return to December 2007 Seiche

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