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Updated 12 October, 2003

US National Assessment of
the Potential Consequences
of Climate Variability and Change
Educational Resources
Regional Paper: Great Lakes


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About this Paper


Note about General Circulation Models


For lots of additional information, see the National Assessment's main page on the Great Lakes Region





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Outdoor Recreation and Tourism

In this section...

Since the early days of settlement, the waterways, shorelines, and woodlands of the Great Lakes region have attracted those seeking leisure time activities. The variety of outdoor recreational opportunities in the Great Lakes Basin ranges from pristine wilderness activities in national parks, such as Isle Royale and Pukaskwa, to use of waterfront beaches in major urban areas.

The Great Lakes states, including New York, welcome about 40% of the total number of foreign visitors that visit the US each year. In some areas of the basin, recreation and tourism are becoming an increasingly important component of the region's economy and displacing the prominence of manufacturing. To protect valuable local resources and to serve the needs of recreational users and tourists, governments on both sides of the United States-Canada border have acquired lands and begun to develop an extensive system of parks, wilderness, and conservation areas.

Despite these conservation efforts, however, climate change poses considerable risk to this region's ecological processes and to ecosystems that are of importance to wildlife and of value to humans. The following discussion addresses the environmental, social, and economic impacts to outdoor recreation and tourism that could result from climate change. The discussion concludes with strategies that could lessen the effect of these impacts.

Environmental Impacts

The Great Lakes Basin offers 100,000 square miles of navigable waters. Wisconsin alone has water resources that include 43,000 miles of flowing water, more than 15,000 inland lakes, 550 miles of coastline on two of the Great Lakes (400 on Lake Michigan and 150 on Lake Superior), and about five million acres of wetlands. However, scientists are concerned that increased variability in temperature and precipitation could have short- and long-term impacts on many of this region's water-based recreational activities.

For example, warmer water conditions in the Great Lakes region would reduce the areas of favorable habitat for trout, whitefish, and other cold-water fishes. If the temperature of groundwater-fed streams increases, then the preferred habitat of brook trout and the majority of habitat for brown and rainbow trout could be eliminated. Moreover, shifts in seasonal runoff patterns and the quantity of runoff could further compromise freshwater fishing. The timing of runoff could be more important than total quantity because of the responses of different fish species in various seasons. Although most of the impacts on fishing are projected to be negative, warm water fish -- both native and introduced -- could experience longer warm-water seasons and flourish with a warmer climate in this region.

Lower lake levels and changes in stream flow and water quality could compromise marshes and wetlands of the Great Lakes region, reducing the habitat suitable for sustaining migrating wildlife and associated hunting and bird watching activities. Reduced lake levels also would limit the ability of the lakes to dilute pollutants that impact ecosystems. Lower lake levels would also contribute to navigational difficulties, but would be likely to result in wider beaches -- a possible benefit for beach-goers.

Recreation that involves forests also would be affected by climate change. Changes in climate could alter the current selection and distribution of trees, which would affect such popular recreational pursuits as hunting, camping, hiking, and foliage viewing in the area. With changes in climate, the extent of forested areas in the region in decline could range from near zero to as much as 50 to 75 %. In one of the two model projections done for the National Assessment, the mixed aspen, birch, beech, maple, and pine forests would be replaced by a combination of grasslands and woodland forest consisting of more oak, elm, ash, and pine trees and would eventually be replaced by grasslands and savanna. On one hand, impacts related to climate change that would be expected to stress the forests of the Great Lakes region include droughts, fires, pests, increasing freeze/thaw events, changes in wind storm frequency and intensity, and diseases. On the other hand, warmer conditions, longer growing seasons, and increased growth through an enhanced carbon dioxide effect could contribute to the health of certain forest species.

Societal Impacts

In addition to the impacts on the well being of the environment in the Great Lakes region, changes in the public perception of the health of that environment could be important. A negative perception of the quality of any outdoor pursuit in this region would deter some from choosing it as a home or travel destination, thereby hurting businesses that rely on outdoor recreation and tourism.

For residents and visitors to this region, outdoor recreation is a way of life. The Great Lakes states are home to 637 state parks, 178 of which are within the Great Lakes Basin. Of these, 110 are coastal (the Great Lakes are considered ‘coastal' for purposes of the Coastal Zone Management Act) and represent half of the park system visitor destinations. The parks, lakes, and other wilderness areas are used for a variety of outdoor recreation activities, including swimming, fishing, boating, hiking, skiing, hunting, and camping. Several million people take one-day excursions and ferry trips on the Great Lakes each year. Adaptations for these and other boating activities could be necessary with reduced water levels.

Studies suggest that warmer conditions generally would be detrimental to winter activities such as skiing, because the season would be shorter and less reliable. However, warmer conditions would likely help promote summer activities because they could lengthen the beach and park visitation season and the most productive parts of the year for warm-water fish. There is also the possibility that the increased number of warm days on the shoulders of the warm season could be offset by an increase in the number of unacceptably warm days in the middle of the warm season. Also, warmer conditions favor increasing concentrations of ground-level ozone, which can challenge the health of the human respiratory system and could curtail outdoor recreation.

Although climate change impacts could pose serious challenges to the ecosystems of the entire Great Lakes region, human activities also can compromise these ecosystems and their ability to provide recreational venues. Destructive human activities that have already occurred include: resource overuse and extensive development (some in areas susceptible to flooding) and alteration of the shorelines, which has changed erosion patterns and contributed to water quality concerns. Discharging pollution from recreational sites and boats and preventing lake level changes that are part of natural weather patterns and processes can also be problems for recreation locations. Reducing any of the human stresses on the natural ecosystems of the region would be likely to assist those ecosystems in accommodating the climate variability and changes that are underway and that are likely in the future.

Economic Impacts

Outdoor recreation and tourism in the Great Lakes region are important to the regional economy, and negative effects from climate change could have a significant impact on supportive industries in the area. Even normal weather variability can impact the economics of the recreation and tourism industries in this region. Estimates show that between 900,000 and 1 million US and Canadian registered boats are operated on the Great Lakes each year. Michigan, in fact, has the largest number of registered recreational boats in the United States. Recreational boaters throughout the entire Great Lakes region spend more than $2 billion per year on their sport. The region's recreational boating industry, which includes boat manufacturers and retailers, marine operators, marine business suppliers, and millions of recreational boaters and anglers, accounts for 6,000 private sector marine-related jobs and 10,000 boat dealer and supplier jobs.

Changes in the viability of recreational fishing could affect the region's economy. In 1991, it was estimated that 2.5 million US anglers fished the Great Lakes for a total of 25.3 million days of fishing. Lake Michigan accounted for nearly 9.9 million days of fishing, or nearly 40 % of that total. The estimated value (in 1993 dollars) of one day of freshwater fishing for trout in Michigan was $16.52; $23.14 to $47.92 in Minnesota and $32.29 in Wisconsin. Fortunately, neither walleye nor perch, which account for 70 % of Michigan's fishing, are expected to suffer a loss of habitat due to warming. EPA estimates, in 1995, addressed the costs associated with habitat loss, temperature tolerance sensitivities in fish, fishing-day values, warm-water fishing behavior, and other potential impacts, including runoff and pollution.

The results of the EPA study were mixed. Two possible future options suggested US annual losses of fresh water fishing opportunities were $95 and $85 million (in 1991 dollars). Two other options suggested that gains in the cool and warm-water fisheries would offset the losses to cold-water fish, with a final gain of about $80 million to the US economy. Others have calculated that while the economic benefit related to the number of fisher-days could decrease by $50 million for cold-water anglers and increase by $64 million for warm-water species, the net economic result could still be a loss of $320 million because of the lower value anglers place on warm-water species.

Strategies to Address Potential Impacts on Outdoor Recreation and Tourism

Options to mitigate the effects of climate change impacts on outdoor recreation in the Great Lakes region could include the following strategies:

  • Incorporate potential climate changes into policies for planning and management of recreationally important areas;
  • Develop more recreational opportunities for the region that are not dependent on the weather;
  • Create weather-warning systems that are relevant to those planning outdoor activities; and
  • Encourage diversity in tree planting, and stocking/hatching cold-water fishes.

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US Climate Change Science Program / US Global Change Research Program, Suite 250, 1717 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20006. Tel: +1 202 223 6262. Fax: +1 202 223 3065. Email: Web: Webmaster: