Volume 1 2015

Precipitation estimates for the Bayfield Peninsula failed to take the unique local weather into account, and climate change will only exacerbate the problem. Photo: Marie Zhuikov.
Sea Grant Research

Climate Change Effects on Chequamegon Bay Area

By Marie Zhuikov

Randy Lehr wants to prepare Chequamegon Bay for the worst.

“Chequamegon Bay is arguably the least climate-adapted spot in the country from an infrastructure viewpoint,” said Lehr, Bro Professor of Sustainable Regional Development at Northland College in Ashland, Wis.

Precipitation estimates for the Bayfield Peninsula developed decades ago fail to take into account the unique local weather caused by geography and Lake Superior.

“As we’ve learned more about how weather patterns set up around here, we were way off—40 to 50 percent off on precipitation estimates on the lower side,” Lehr said.

Unfortunately, the area’s protection from heavy storms—culverts, road crossings and ditches—were all built based on these erroneous data.

Climate change exacerbates the problem. Chequamegon Bay is large and sits on the south shore of Lake Superior.

“If climate change is going to have an impact anywhere, Chequamegon Bay will be that place,” Lehr said. “It’s shallow and will probably warm up the quickest, and there are anomalies with the way we’ve built out the land surrounding the bay.”

We’ve already seen evidence of these problems. Intense storms this fall breached a barge connection system in the harbor designed to protect the Northern States Power Superfund site. Soil and groundwater at the site are contaminated with tar, oil, metals and other chemical pollutants. The damage postponed cleanup efforts until next spring, providing more time and opportunity for the substances to spread. Lehr’s research, funded by Wisconsin Sea Grant, could help prevent such weather-related damage and delays in the years to come.

To help the area prepare for future conditions, which include increased temperature and rainfalls, Lehr and his team are developing computer models of the bay that focus on water circulation and the interactions between physical, chemical and biological processes. They are “ground-truthing” the models with measurements of temperature, nutrients, phosphorus, nitrogen, oxygen, etc., from area streams and 11 sampling sites in the bay.

Lehr expects the models developed through the Sea Grant project will be useful to fishery managers, engineers, researchers and city planners. The next steps are to build draft models based on the data collected and to analyze the species found in the plankton tows the team conducted during the summer of 2014. Lehr hopes to have an understanding of all the data collected by spring so that he can refine the field sampling protocol for the upcoming field season.

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University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute & University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute.

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