A closer look at Earth from space reveals an immense shared system of freshwater lakes that are connected to each other and to the world ocean by the water cycle. The Great Lakes — Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario — and the rivers, channels, and smaller lakes that feed or drain them make up the largest surface freshwater system on Earth. While the Great Lakes system spreads across more than 94,000 square miles (243,460 square kilometers), it drains a much larger watershed that includes parts of eight states and two Canadian provinces. Like one giant slow-moving river that flows west to east out to the Atlantic Coast, freshwater from the Great Lakes flows back into the ocean through the St. Lawrence River.
The sheer size of the Great Lakes and the ocean has led many to believe that water is renewable and that “dilution is the solution to pollution.” Both notions are dead wrong. The amount of water in the ocean and the world’s freshwater system is limited by the complex hydrologic cycle, which recycles the same water that connects past, present and future generations. This means there will be no new water for an ever growing population that has climbed to over 7 billion. It also guarantees that pollutants introduced by people are accumulating in the world’s water. Pollutants that run off the land, soak into the ground or are spewed into the air get carried to other areas and eventually into the ocean. As the water cycle is repeated again and again, more chemicals, trash, plastic and other pollutants are added to a system that is on the verge of collapse.
We can stop adding to pollution, reduce demands for water and stop climate change to protect the water cycle and the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem and the ocean. We can keep plastic and chemicals from pharmaceuticals, personal care products, pesticides and other newer pollutants from accumulating along with old pollutants like DDT and mercury that were added by past generations and which have not disappeared. Our personal choices and the ones we make collectively in our communities, region and nation about protecting land and water resources will determine the future of the Great Lakes and the ocean. Shouldn’t we do what it takes to keep drinking water safe, eliminate dead zones and defend diminishing fish and aquatic wildlife populations?
Join us in the coming weeks as we zoom in for a closer look at our water resources, what others are doing and what you can do to restore this elixir of life and protect it for future generations.
Contributing writer, Anna McCartney, a communications and education specialist for Pennsylvania Sea Grant, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.