If Lake Michigan were an ocean, Northwestern’s campus would be destroyed by the end of the century. Some climate scientists think that rising temperatures due to climate change could mean that sea levels could rise by as much as two meters by the year 2100.
Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen predicts that changes in sea level may occur even faster, rising several meters within the next 50 to 150 years. While Evanston and the Greater Chicago area are lucky that Lake Michigan is not an ocean, the gravity of this scenario demonstrates how dangerous the realities of a warming climate are.
What exactly is happening with the world’s oceans?
According to NASA’s studies of oceans and the climate, the world’s oceans absorb more than 90 percent of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. These greenhouse gases collect in the atmosphere as a result of human use of fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide. This extra heat in the atmosphere causes glaciers and ice sheets to melt at rapid rates, causing ocean levels to rise.
Over the next 600 years, climate scientists believe that the largest source in rising sea levels will come from the melting of the ice sheets of Antarctica. The Antarctic ice sheet holds enough ice to cause sea levels to rise by 190 feet, according to NASA.
What does this mean for coastal cities?
Today, more than 160 million people live in coastal cities around the world, according to NASA. Just in the United States, 23 of the 25 largest counties are coastal counties. Not only will water levels rise in these cities, but storms and hurricanes are expected to increase in intensity. By the year 2050, losses from flood damage in coastal cities could reach as much as $1 trillion per year, according to NASA.
What if Evanston were on an ocean instead of a lake?
Though it dominates the horizon and seems endless, Lake Michigan is indeed a lake. It will likely not be affected by a warming planet, at least in terms of rising water levels. However, in order to imagine just how much damage rising sea levels will cause, these juxtaposition graphics represent what Evanston might look like if Lake Michigan were an ocean instead of just a lake.
NBN Politics teamed up with Northwestern Earth and Planetary Sciences faculty members Brad Sageman and Matthew Rossi, as well as Weinberg senior and geology major Tyler Kukla to understand how to create a representation of what Evanston might look like at the end of the century if it were a true coastal city and water levels rose. The last time ocean levels rose between six and nine meters was a period known as the Eemian period, which took place between 130,000 and 115,000 years ago.
The following graphics are based on data from LiDar maps of the Evanston area rendered in ArcMap. ArcMap is an application used to display and explore geographic information system, or GIS. GIS is a computer system that allows for the capture and display of data relating to the Earth’s surface, according to National Geographic.
Use the white bars in each of the maps below to scroll back and forth and compare Northwestern's campus today with what it might look like if lake levels were to rise two, six and nine meters.
= elevations above175.035 meters, which is the current lake level estimated by ArcMap.
Two Meter Rise Map
= elevations above 177.035 meters. All levels below this point would likely be filled with water if lake levels rose two meters.
Six Meter Rise Map
= elevations above 181.035 meters. All levels below this point would likely be filled with water if lake levels rose six meters.
Nine Meter Rise Map
= elevations above 184.035 meters. All levels below this point would likely be filled with water if lake levels rose nine meters.
It becomes apparent that much of Northwestern’s campus, including Norris, the Technological Institute, the new Kellogg School of Management and the Lakefill would likely suffer major damages from rising water levels. Goodbye, spring quarter hammock days.
What will actually happen to Evanston as the climate warms over the next few centuries?
Again, Chicago is not at sea level, and the water level of Lake Michigan will not rise along with the planet’s oceans over the next few centuries, but Evanston's climate is still likely to change drastically as a result of global warming. The Great Lakes represent 20 percent of the Earth's freshwater supply, a resource that is likely to be in great demand as global warming increases drought in many areas.
At the end of the century, Evanston and the Greater Chicago area might warm to a climate similar to that of the present day climate in San Antonio, according to Northwestern economics professor Mark Witte. Witte specializes in the economics of the environment.
Witte predicts that 100 years from now, Evanston residents won’t see much (if any) snow in the winter. Many of Northwestern’s buildings are already air-conditioned, so higher temperatures likely wouldn’t mean too many structural changes for the University. Because of the immense amount of energy it takes to heat buildings during the winter, campus might even be more energy efficient if this heating is no longer necessary, according to Witte.
“I think climate change will bring winners and losers. Mostly losers, but I think it won’t be that terrible for us [over the next century]. That is again assuming that the changes are all incremental, that there’s not some tipping point we haven’t seen that, once crossed, gives a very different world that we are just not ready for,” Witte said.
Witte said that cities in the Midwest like Chicago might become destinations for those moving away from the coast.
“The water will probably be relatively cheap here. Why would you want to live in Chicago when the winters are terrible? Well, that won’t really be the case. The summers aren’t so great, and they will be even worse, but they will be worse other places.”
Whether or not the Greater Chicago area will be a “loser” in the game of climate change, rising temperatures and rising sea levels will cause serious damages in the years to come unless the world makes a major cut in greenhouse gas emissions.
Many Americans assume that the president, the Supreme Court and the media will take care of leading the charge in creating a more sustainable society. However, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases depends heavily on the activities of individual people every day.
Let's look at meat consumption, for instance. One unit of protein uses 150 times the greenhouse gas emissions that one unit of soy protein uses, according to USA Today. The problem stems right down to the individual, and unless individuals begin to make a serious commitment to leading more sustainable lifestyles, the planet will face serious problems in the near future.