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Environment & Climate Change

National Geographic journalists capture the majesty and fragility of the Great Lakes

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Keith Ladzinski
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National Geographic

The cover story in this month’s issue of National Geographic takes a deep dive into the many major threats to the health of the Great Lakes. In the magazine you’ll find dramatic photos of massive algal blooms and surging floodwaters, as well as up-close portraits of invasive species that are disrupting the local ecosystems.

Tim Folger is the writer behind this story. He is a National Geographic contributing writer, as well as a contributing editor at Discover magazine. Keith Ladzinski is a photographer at National Geographic, as well as a filmmaker who took the photos for the story.

“It’s really hard to overstate just how valuable the Great Lakes are. They supply drinking water to something like 40 million people in Canada and the United States. They support a multibillion-dollar sportfishing industry. Not to mention just the wildlife that the lakes sustain, and the commerce, and just the sheer beauty of the place,” said Folger.

Two journalists capture the damage to, and the delight of the Great Lakes in this month's issue of National Geographic.
Credit National Geographic

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The Great Lakes have various pollution problems and invasive species— from zebra and quagga mussels to fertilizer runoff. Fertilizer runoff deposits an oversupply of nutrients into the water which causes algae blooms. These blooms, that occur in the spring, release harmful toxins into the water causing damage to communities' drinking water and local ecosystems.

Researchers briefly thought the algal bloom problem was solved. From the 1950s to 1970s, algal blooms were a recurring issue in the Great Lakes until the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Folger pointed to the no-till agriculture shift in the 1990s as the culprit for the return of algal blooms. He said it's paradoxical because no-till agriculture is important to reduce top soil erosion, but it also increases fertilizer runoff. Combine excess fertilizer with increased rainfall due to climate change, and the runoff has become a major problem. 

Ladzinski took the cover photo for this issue of National Geographic, and also captured many pictures of the algae bloom on Lake Erie. He was bewildered by the algal bloom's magnitude.

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Credit Keith Ladzinski / National Geographic
A research boat cuts through a severe bloom of blue-green algae that covered the western half of Lake Erie in 2019

“The big challenge is when you’re dealing with something that is 600 square miles you need scale. You need something that communicates that. And a lot of the things I was setting up to do was to find little elements of, you can see where the green meet civilization,” Ladzinski said.

Ladzinski and Folger also reported on the invasive species that have permanently altered the Great Lake’s ecosystem. Lampreys and zebra mussels are among the top invasive threats to the Great Lakes.

Folger said that while learning about the effects of invasive species was disheartening, there is a bright spot. Zebra mussels entered the Great Lakes through ballast water in ocean freighters. Because of increased regulation regarding ballast water, Folger said no new invasive species have entered the Great Lakes through the Saint Lawrence Seaway in the last 12 years.

Folger said it's easy for people not to see the fragility of the Great Lakes.  

“[The Great Lakes are] younger than the oldest Egyptian pyramids. And because they’re younger they haven’t had a lot of time to develop the resilience and diversity of more mature ecosystems like the oceans or the Amazon rainforest,” Folger said.

Folger and Ladzinsky echoed that increased and rigorous regulation and support for the Great Lakes are critical to saving the delicate ecosystems of the lakes.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan

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