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Climate Calamities: 10 recent Michigan mishaps

As climate change angst and debate grows, so too do weather-induced mishaps in locales across Michigan. Here are ten Great Lakes State examples of how “talk about the weather” often has a sharp edge these days.

BAY COUNTY –  After days of temperatures near or over 100 degrees, Bangor Township resident Marti Murphy looks out in July 2012 from his property on the Kawkawlin River and spots about a dozen northern pike floating belly up. An angler on the Tittabawasee River reports more than 200 more on an online sportsman's forum and someone on a Montcalm County lake counts a dozen, adding that he had not “checked water temp but it is bath water.”  Record heat pushes water temperature in the Kawkawlin to 90 degrees, stressing pike to their breaking point. Hundreds of pike die in the Quanicassee, Kawkawlin and Kalamazoo rivers and the confluence of the Shiawassee and Tittabawasee rivers, an official with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reports. It is the first time he was aware of such a mass die-off due to extreme water temperatures. There also are reports of smaller numbers of dead bass and bluegills, species more adapted to warm water. But with long-range climate projections of more extreme heat, the rare event could become more commonplace.

CALHOUN COUNTY – Transportation officials breathe a sigh of relief when no one is injured after a section of I-69 buckles under extreme heat in June 2011. The crease in the concrete is high enough that observers can look under it and see daylight at the other end. Skid marks at the scene suggest that a motorist or two may have gone airborne before the highway was shut down. A worker for the Michigan Department of Transportation measures the surface temperature at about 116 degrees. “All I know it that it's a heat-related problem (involving) the expansion of the concrete,” he tells WOOD-TV. In May 2010, a section of Business I-196 in Zeeland buckles under extreme heat. The incident follows two days of record high temperatures, as Grand Rapids reaches 89 degrees and 90 degrees. The temperature tops 85 degrees four consecutive days in the Holland-Zeeland area. “The concrete in some places is 4 inches up,” Zeeland Police Sgt. Tom Ball tells Mlive. “Normally, we don't have this kind of thing until August, when you have all those 90-degree days.”

DETROIT – If projections prove true, the city could be a hazardous place to live – because of climate, not necessarily crime - by the end of the century. Analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization that favors environmental reform, reports that Detroit could face 23 days of annual temperatures over 100 degrees by the end of the century if global emissions are not curtailed. It notes that extreme heat is linked to a variety of physical conditions, including asthma, skin rash, heat stroke, headache, rapid heartbeat and in some cases, death. In studies of weather data from 1959 to 2011, it found the number of very hot and humid and hot and dry days increased by more than six days a year .and the number of cool, dry days decreased by 10 days a year. It found significant increases in summer nighttime temperatures as well. On average, it found the city has two additional heat waves a year, three consecutive days when dangerously hot air masses move over the city. Isolated, elderly, residents of inner city neighborhoods are considered particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. In 1995, a heat wave in Chicago killed approximately 750 residents, most of whom were elderly in poor neighborhoods.

GRAND RAPIDS – All-time record rains in  April – more than 11 inches - push the Grand River to the highest level ever recorded in downtown Grand Rapids, nearly four feet above flood stage. As the river surges within inches of topping the city flood wall, water bubbles up in basements of  downtown buildings including Forslund Condominiums, the JW Marriott, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and Plaza Towers. Residents in Plaza Towers are forced to evacuate when a generator blows and knocks out electricity to the 32-story building. Two bridges are closed. With the state's second-largest city in a state of emergency, crews scramble to protect the waste water treatment plant with a wall of sandbags guarding the perimeter. Meanwhile, an office worker at another downtown building takes a photo that quickly goes viral, showing a fish swimming past a first-floor window. Preliminary estimates place flood damage in Grand Rapids at more than $11 million and about $6 million in other parts of Kent County. The city discharges approximately 429 million gallons of partially treated sewage into the Grand River. No single rainstorm or flood can be attributed to global warming. But the flood fits a pattern of severe storms and floods predicted to become more frequent in the decades ahead.

GREAT LAKES – The $34 billion Great Lakes shipping industry is threatened by historic low lake levels, forcing freighters to carry lighter cargo loads and raising the urgency to dredge harbors choked by silt and inaccessible to freighters. Lake Michigan and Lake Huron drop to historic low lake levels in January, breaking the previous record set in March 1964. It is the lowest since modern record-keeping began in 1918, as Lake Michigan remains below the long-term average level for 14 consecutive years. It is costly to shipping, as The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that inadequate harbor maintenance increased the cost of traded products by $7 billion in 2010. With critical passageways like the St. Mary's River dangerously shallow, the Lake Carriers Association estimates that the largest freighters are losing 10,000 tons of cargo each trip. Recreational boating is threatened as well, prompting Gov. Rick Snyder in March to sign a $20.9 million bill to fund dredging in 58 public bays and harbors. Experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – while saying uncertainty remains about future lake levels – note that warmer summer temperatures are driving increased evaporation over the lakes.

HOLLAND – The locals have a name for it: “Stem Fest.” For the second time in a decade, Holland's famed Tulip Time celebration is hit by an unusually warm spring that prompts hundreds of thousands of tulips to bloom early in April 2012. Organizers encourage visitors to come for the tulips in April and return for the festival in May. But with the festival set for May 5 to May 12, attendees are greeted by the  specter of acres of headless green stems in lieu of colorful blooming tulips. A local business capitalizes, selling “Stem Fest” T-shirts for $16 and sweatshirts for $27. Tulip Time organizers get on board, too, marketing T-shirts and buttons of their own. “I hope people have fun with it,” said Susan Zalnis, Tulip Time’s marketing manager tells the Holland Sentinel.  An industrious backup plan – to hold some 10,000 potted tulips in a cooler chilled to 40 degrees – can compensate for only a small part of the carnage. Gov. Rick Snyder congratulates Holland for its sense of humor and quick response. But with a return to abundant blooms for 2013 Tulip Time, it leaves officials less-than-confident over future festival scheduling.

LAKE ST. CLAIR – Low lake levels are an inviting welcome mat to a nasty invasive plant species known as Phragmites. It is choking out native plants in many areas of shoreline, leading to loss of wildlife habit, plant and animal diversity. Its calling card: Altering the structure of marsh ecosystems by changing nutrient cycles and drying out wetlands. Growing to 12 feet tall or higher, it spreads quickly as it releases toxins from its roots to hinder the growth of surrounding plants.  It has been disrupting marsh ecosystems in Ontario for decades. By 2012, Phragmites covered about 16 per cent of  Harsens Island, a marshy community at the mouth of the St. Clair River. It is a threat to Saginaw Bay and other areas of shoreline on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Canadian wetlands ecologist and Phragmites expert Janice Gilbert calls the plant “the single greatest threat to Great Lakes coastal wetlands. This aggressive invasive can out-compete all our native plants.” The interior of a stand of Phragmites, Gilbert said, “is basically dead zones.” Continued low lake levels could make the fight – often burning combined with herbicides - against Phragmites difficult. “The cost to control established Phragmites stands is enormous and often overwhelming, necessitating improved strategies for limiting spread and identifying the need for treatment early,” a report by Great Lakes Restoration Initiative states.

NEWBERRY – On May 23, 2012, lightning sparks a small fire near remote Duck Lake in the Upper Peninsula. Firefighters sent to the scene figure they have it contained. But gusty winds the next day whip the fire out of control and by 8 pm, more than 4,000 acres are aflame. By the time it is contained, more than 21,000 acres are scorched and 136 structures destroyed. It is the third largest fire in state history. It comes in an unusually warm and dry spring amid wildfire conditions rated as “very high” by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which reports that six lighting strikes developed into fires on May 21. The Rainbow Lodge, home to generations of anglers and canoeists, is destroyed, along with 49 cabins and homes and 26 campers. While no single fire can be pinned to climate change, experts see a pattern as more prolonged periods of heat and drought drive up fire risk. According to U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, wildfires consume twice as many acres a year as they did 40 years ago.

SAGINAW BAY – As seen from space, the waters of Saginaw Bay look anything from pristine. Satellite imagery in October 2011 captures a massive algae bloom on the bay of a blue-green algae known to produce the toxin microcystin. It is exceeded by an even-larger bloom on Lake Erie that an official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls the “worst bloom in decades.” Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences foresees more frequent and intense algae blooms linked to heavy rainfall, agricultural runoff and climate change. Bay City residents detect a musty taste in their drinking water, which comes from Saginaw Bay. The frustrated official in charge of the city's treatment plant tells Mlive: “It's not acceptable to us. It’s not going to hurt you, but it’s not something we want to taste in the water.” The National Academy study concludes: “If a scientifically guided management plan to mitigate these impacts is not implemented, we can therefore expect this bloom to be a harbinger of future blooms in Lake Erie.” The same could be said for Saginaw Bay.

SLEEPING BEAR DUNES  – In the summer and fall of 2012, hundreds of dead loons wash up along the shore of this Leelanau County national lakeshore park. Hundreds more litter the Upper Peninsula shoreline on the northern side of Lake Michigan. Other dead water birds are found as well, including horned grebes, long-tailed ducks, cormorants, herring gulls and red-breasted and common mergansers. Wildlife experts believe the die-offs – which happened in 2006 and 2007 as well – are tied to complex interaction linked to invasive species and changes in water temperature and water levels that are possibly attributable, at least in part, to climate change. According to this analysis, invasive zebra mussels filter Lake Michigan's water, allowing an algae called cladophora to bloom. As the algae settles to the bottom, it stimulates growth of a toxin called Type E bolulism. The botulism works its way up the food chain and is eaten by fish including the invasive round goby, which in turn is eaten by water birds. The birds die when they can no longer hold their heads out of the water. A National Park Services ecologist ties the outbreaks to years of low lake levels and higher spring and summer water temperatures.

Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

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