A NEW LOOK AT THE GREAT LAKES
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
They’re a new Mediterranean for ten million people. But for the scientists of the Great Lakes Institute they’re an unexplored inland sea now beginning to yield some ominous secrets. All five lakes are slowly destroying themselves. We’re speeding the wreckage by making them “the greatest dumping ground in North America”
IT'S HARD TO THINK of the Great Lakes as anything less permanent than the shape of North America, yet they re showing signs of age. A lake's ultimate destiny is to destroy itself. It grows wider and shallower as wave action and surface drainage erode its shores and sediment fills up its basin. These are slow processes. But the aging of the Great Lakes is being speeded enormously by man, whose ability to destroy them parallels their importance to him. Today the Great Lakes influence the lives of a sixth of the population of North America. Over ten million people live in towns and cities directly on their shores. They're the site of three cities of over a million population, including the ninth biggest city in the world, and they’re the world's busiest inland waterway. More shipping probably passes through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie than through the Panama and Suez Canals combined. All of this means increasing pollution, chemical change and disturbance of nature. At last report, the equivalent of 446 barrels of oil a day were being dumped into the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. The salts left in the effluent of sewage treatment plants are turning parts of the lakes brackish. Algae growth is in places so dense that it’s clogging water intakes, and at times turns the west end of Lake Erie a noticeable green. The Welland Canal has let the sea lamprey into the upper lakes, where it has done serious damage to the fishing industry. The Great Lakes have become a pressure point of a vast economic complex equipped to draw so much power at Niagara that Canadian and American authorities have agreed to take most of it at night to leave some water coming over the falls for the daytime tourists. In the late twenties, Chicago was diverting so much Great Lakes water to flush its sewage down the Mississippi drainage system that it was limited by supreme court permit to 1,500 cubic feet a second. The biggest supply of fresh water on earth (the second biggest is in Lake Baikal, in Siberia, 5,315 feet deep) and a New World Riviera for hundreds of thousands of holidayers, the Great Lakes have become the latest critical area in our waning natural resources.
To decide how Canada and the United States can go on using the lakes without running into trouble is the job taken on by the Great Lakes Institute, an organization headed by University of Toronto scientists which is conducting a continuing survey of the Great Lakes from a research vessel, the Porte Dauphine. I first heard of the Porte Dauphine from Dr. George B. Langford, a towering, bald man who is head of the CONTINUED OVERLEAF
MORE PICTURES OF THE PORTE DAUPHINE IN ACTION ON PAGES 6Î AND 63
Department of Geology at the University of Toronto and Director of the Institute. To say that he's enthusiastic about the Institute's work is an understatement.
Many organizations in the United States and Canada are involved one way or another with Great Lakes research. but none on such a comprehensive scale. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is engaged in the same work, but has no full-time research vessel, and gets along on university funds, whereas the Great Lakes Institute has support from the Canadian Department of Transport, which loaned the Porte Dauphine and pays its operating costs; the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests; the National Research Council; the Defence Research Board and the National Science Foundation of Washington. In addition, participating scientists come from the Transport Department, the Ontario Water Resources Commission, the University of Western Ontario, Columbia University, and McMaster University as well as the University of Toronto; and services have been supplied by the Toronto Harbour Commissioners.
“On both sides of the line,” Dr. Langford told me in his office in the University of Toronto Mining Building, “people have always wanted to get on with this job, but research hail fallen between stools. The United States have eight states bordering the Great Lakes but haven't been able to get to first base. Sooner or later, and the sooner the better, there will have to be much more rigid controls on the lakes. 1 can foresee an international police force. As it is, the Great Lakes are the greatest dumping grounds in North America. Ships coming in from Europe and Asia and all points of the world throw all their garbage into the lakes. They're supposed to put it in cans and bring it to port, but cooks from all over the world dump it overboard.”
The Institute's biological program comes under the head of Dr. F. E. J. Fry, and physical research under that of Dr. Roger Deane, a lank, dedicated professor who does skin diving and tried to interest me in it, with no luck. He did. however, arrange for me to take a trip on the Porte Dauphine, which I was to pick up at Douglas Point, on the east shore of Lake Huron, near the town of Kincardine. Douglas Point is where Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd., with the co-operation of the Ontario Hydro Electric Power Commission is constructing Canada's first commercial nuclear generating station, and the Great Lakes Institute is doing background checks of water chemistry and currents, as well as fish and plant life, within the 2,300-acre guarded strip of shore line. The Institute has the commission’s whole-hearted support, in fact, blessings, in its efforts to assess the future effects of the plant's operations, if any.
It was behind a heap of the blasted and bulldozed rock from which rises the huge concrete shell of the reactor that I first saw the Porte Dauphine, three masts against a milky morning sky. She was suddenly there as if someone had projected a home movie onto a wet bed sheet, moving very slowly, silently and impressively for her size, and was gone just as suddenly, as if someone had snapped the projector off. I wasn’t able to board her until the evening, when she appeared again in a drizzling rain. Two Great Lakes Institute men took me out to the ship in an outboard motorboat. I felt a couple of hands discreetly supporting my backside as I struggled to climb aboard. I arrived over the rail like a large trout and found myself talking to a deck hand in overalls who came out of a conglomeration of winches, ropes, cables and cranes in the rain.
The Porte Dauphine, a busy-looking 125-foot, blackhulled workship with white CONTINUED ON PAGE 56
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The laboratory ship at first seemed mainly water and flies — water inside, on deck and all around
superstructure and buff funnels, was built in Collingwood in 1952 for the Royal Canadian Navy, to be used as a gate tender, the name given a craft that opens and closes underwater cable barriers around mine fields. She has a crew of fourteen officers and men, along with a scientific staff varying in number from six to twelve. I was taken to the bridge to meet Captain Hodge, an erect, blueeyed Englishman who served nine years with the Royal Navy. He was cheerfully busy at his chart table. A wheelsman sat on a stool, arm hooked around one of the spokes, holding a cigarette and looking bored. Captain Hodge handed me a notice typed on a Department of Transport form that read: “In the event of an emergency, God forbid, your boat station will be the port life float” — and told me to come up to the bridge whenever I felt like it. I wandered around the ship in the rain in considerable confusion, coming up against unfamiliar winches and strange equipment, with the water going the wrong way. The technician’s lab was a brightly lit mixture of flasks, tubes and steaming equipment that made it look like a restaurant kitchen. Silent figures sat filling out reports and working before chemical apparatus. There was a general impression of water — water inside in bottles, and water outside on the deck, water gurgling past the sides of the ship, and there were thousands of flies. (The flies all disappeared when we reached Lake Erie and joined ship again when we docked at Leamington.) I found the galley. There was a big pot of coffee and one of tea on the
blistering hot galley stove, and anyone was free to have coffee or tea any time, providing he washed his cup afterward. I was told bitterly, by a seaman who spat disconsolately over the rail, that you could tell the tea from the coffee because the tea pot had a piece of white adhesive tape on the handle.
Later that night lightning knocked out the ship's radar and I learned that we were to put in at Goderich to have it fixed. As the Porte Dauphine would lie over for the weekend before starting research work in Lake Erie, I arranged to get off there and pick up the ship again Sunday night in Sarnia. 1 hoisted myself into an upper bunk, and woke in the morning in time to watch the captain line up the two navigation lights in Goderich harbor and come in to a dock that magically materialized out of the mist.
The cruise from Sarnia on Monday, down the St. Clair River, across Lake St. Clair and down the Detroit River afforded a powerful impression of the tremendous activity that goes on around the Great Lakes. We passed a constant procession of freighters: ships of the Hamburg-Chicago Line, the Hellenic Lines, Bristol City, Oldingham Hill and Manchester Lines; the Mitsui Line and the Rotterdam Line. We passed the Bethlehem, the Ben E. Tate, the Thomas E. Millsop, the Joseph H. Frantz, the Diamond Alkali, the Mount Evans, and one with a name that was my personal favorite — The Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. Spud Scow No. 9. Captain Hodge exchanged messages over short wave with an American voice that
was polite but sounded as if its owner were in shirt sleeves. Great Lakes work is largely difficult pilotage. A salt-water ship docks perhaps twenty-five times a year: a lake boat sometimes three times a day.
The lakes are shallow, their lanes heavy with shipping. A Great Lakes skipper commonly sees thirty ships in his radar at one time: or. entering the traffic jam at the mouth of the Detroit River, thirty to forty freighters lined up in a five-mile strip of shipping lanes. When the 8.500-ton freighter Standard Portland Cement was rammed by the 580-foot Albert Ziesing on Lake
Huron in May, 1960, the resulting twetvehour traffic tie-up involved seventy Great Lakes vessels. If a captain turns his head for five minutes in the Detroit or St. Clair Rivers he can be in real trouble.
The Great Lakes are singularly tricky basins of water. Although there is virtually no tide (the highest is at Chicago: eighteen ir.ches) the syphoning effect of low-pressure areas, combined with a high wind, will produce a “seiche,” an oscillation of water in the lake basin like the water swinging back and forth in a bathtub. The surface of Lake Erie will rise eight and
a half feet in a few hours, throwing out all the depths given on hydrographic charts. Lake Erie is notorious for its mean chop, and during an October gale waves in Lake Michigan have been reported by one scientific observer, who admitted to leaning toward the conservative side, at fifteen feet high, while others with him in the same storm estimated them at thirty feet. Great Lakes storms are violent and sudden and have taken a great toll of lives and ships. On May 8, 1914, in a moderate storm, the S. R. Kirby was hit by a wave that came over her port bow and tipped
her stern high in the air. A second wave smashed into her, and a third, catching her underneath, plunged her to the bottom. In November, 1958, a wave hit the freighter Eastern Shell, knocked out her radar, ship-to-shore telephone and directional finder and broke five glass windows in the wheeihouse. The captain’s leg was cut so badly that he was only kept alive by the use of a tourniquet. In the same month, the Carl D. Bradley, a 615-foot limestone carrier broke in half in a storm in northern Lake Michigan and sank with a loss of thirty-three men. One of the worst Great Lakes tragedies took place on Sunday. November 9, 1913, when a storm sank eight ships on Lake Huron and two on Lake Superior with a loss of 235 men. There were no survivors.
Bird house? No, a bathythermograph
It was hard to imagine the Great Lakes in anything but a serene mood as we came out of the long, dredged-out shipping lanes that extend like fingers into Lake Erie through a surprising sweep of marshland that looked exactly like the savannas of Georgia. Shortly after emerging from these channels, the Porte Dauphine settled down to her main work, which was to make a "synoptic cruise,” a phrase that bothered me until I realized that it referred to a synopsis of information about weather, currents, water chemistry and temperatures, plankton and sedimentation, gathered at each cf a number of index stations. These are points of longitude and latitude, plotted on a hydrographic chart, which take the Porte Dauphine on a painstaking zig-zag course back and forth across the lakes. At the first station, when the sound of the engines stopped, and the ship lay rolling slightly in the swell, a lab technician came out to an arrangement that looked like a bird house, leaned over the rail and lowered a thin cable by a small electric winch, to which were fastened two instruments. The first was called a bathythermograph, which looks much like a small brass aerial bomb, with fins at the end. A photographic plate is snapped into place and on this the instrument automatically records a graph, plotting temperature against depth. There's always a sudden jog on the graph, indicating a sharp drop in water temperature. This is called the thermocline, and is well-known to all skin divers. It marks the level of the sharpest change in temperature between warm and cold layers, and involves an important fact about the Great Lakes. Seasons on the Great Lakes mean something much more complex than a simple change of temperature. Something takes place comparable to the change of seasons on land. It hinges on the fact that water reaches its maximum density at about four degrees centigrade (39.2 degrees on the back porch thermometer). Water, as it becomes either warmer rr colder than this, becomes less dense. In summer and winter in the Great Lakes there is a separation of the water into a light layer on top and a heavy layer on the bottom. In summer the top layer is lighter than the bottom layer because it is warmer; in w:nter it is lighter because it is colder and because the lake as a whole is colder than the critical four-degree centigrade temperature. But in spring, as the top layer warms up, and in fall, as it cools off, there is a point in the process where the density of the water is the same at all depths. At this period, the water may be circulated from top to bottom by winds and currents. This process has an important effect on lake water, as it circulates oxygen, absorbed at the surface, down into the bottom layers.
Oxygen content of water, which is of course vital to all life in the lakes, is checked by the second instrument lowered.
each time, with the bathythermograph. This is a foot-long metal cylinder trap, triggered by a weight that slides down the cable. The water trap snaps shut on its sample of water. The sample is then hauled to the surface and a chemical analysis is performed to determine its dissolved oxygen content.
Sampling of the lake bottom for sedimentation is done by another spring trap arrangement or by taking core samples with a small drilling rig. The lakes are settling basins for everything that swims, and dies; for decayed plant life, for hundreds of tons of topsoil washed from the surrounding land; and for everything carried into it by streams. Echo-sounding operations have indicated that in parts of the Great Lakes, particularly in Lake Superior, the bottom is bald, ancient bedrock, all sediment having sifted down into depressions. Much of the sediment from the bottom of Lake Erie, however, is a thick layer of substance so finely divided and silky that it's about the texture of soft butter, and so deep in places that the echo sounder fails to show bedrock.
The land is still springing back
Very little is known about the Great Lakes basins as they existed in preglacial times. There was probably a drainage system that was widened and deepened by the advancing ice. There may have been Great Lakes before the ones we know today. but if so all records were wiped out by the glaciers. Today's Great Lakes, and their immediate ancestors, which are known in considerable detail to geologists, were filled with the meltwaters of glaciers that receded so recently, in terms of geological time, that the land is still springing back from the release of their weight. The region of Kingston. Ontario, is known to have risen at least 600 feet since the ice left the area. Belleville is still rising relative to Toronto. As the glaciers receded, streams flowed off the ice and were often ponded into lakes between the ice face and the moraine of the glacial deposits to the south. The first lake, known to geologists as Lake Maumee, formed at the west end of Lake Erie, and began draining into the Mississippi, as all the first Great Lakes did. As the retreating ice exposed lower outlets Lake Maumee drained westward into another small early lake. Lake Chicago, which had formed at the southern tip of the Michigan basin. Lake Ontario and Lake Superior were the last to he uncovered. The Lake Ontario ice lobe, as it withdrew along its basin, first exposed the Niagara escarpment and allowed the water of Lake Erie to pour over it down the Niagara river. Finally, after a long pause at the east end of the Lake Ontario basin, during which time the meltwaters from the glacier drained down the Hudson River, the vanishing icc lobe exposed the St. Lawrence valley and allowed a long arm of the sea to extend up the valley almost into the Ontario basin. This was finally checked by the uplifting land, to produce the Great Lakes as we know them today.
The glacial processes that formed the Great Lakes ended about 9.000 years ago. Sedimentation has been going on ever since. Today it is of tremendous importance to Great Lakes shipping, where every inch of clearance in harbors and canals means a big difference in a ship's payload. (One inch would mean a difference, to the Canada Steamship Lines' 730 - foot grain carrier Whitefish Bay. of $8,250 worth of wheat.) Great changes in the fish life of Lake Erie have taken place concurrently with sedimentation and change of temperature. (Something in the climate, as yet unknown, has raised the average annual temperature two degrees since 1920.) Species of fish have grown progres-
sively coarser. Until 1925. the important fish was the Cisco, or fresh-water herring, a plankton feeder that likes clear, cool water and spawns on a sand or gravel bottom. In 1925 these species dropped sharply in number although they have reappeared since in occasional strong spurts. Now the only fish of commercial importanceare the smelt and perch.
The Porte Dauphine, all the time I was aboard, passed an endless procession of dead fish, about one every minute. One of the most abundant fish in Lakes Frie. Huron and Michigan now is the alewife.
a fish probably native to Lake Ontario which got into the upper lakes through the Welland Canal, and whieh dies by the hundreds of thousands and creates great stenches on the beaches.
The Welland Canal also permitted the sea lamprey to migrate through Lake Frie, which it doesn’t like to the upper lakes, which it does. The sea lamprey, a multihued ancient nightmare with weak eyes, a sort of radar for finding its prey, and a funnel for a face, is a vampire. It has enough suction to operate a windshield wiper, and has become so well-known to
harassed fisheries men that it is sometimes referred to simply as “the animal.” It was landlocked in Lake Ontario some 9,000 years ago (“landlocked,” in a biological sense, doesn't mean cut off from the sea literally, but cut off by conditions) where it has always lived in some sort of balance with nature. In the Upper Lakes, however, it has created havoc. In 1936 the catch of lake trout, the lamprey's favorite target, was five and a half million pounds in Lake Huron. In 1945 it was less than half a million, and today in Lake Huron lake trout are practically extinct. In 1944, in
Lake Michigan, the lake trout catch was six and a half million pounds. In 1950 it was 100,000 pounds and the fishing industry collapsed.
The sea lamprey has been the object of desperate countermeasures. Electrical barriers. which either electrocute the animal or deflect it into a trap, have been abandoned as too awkward and expensive to operate, and only partially efficient. Now the method being used is the poisoning of streams with a lampricide developed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the barriers are used chiefly to count lampreys. Ironically, in the first year after completion of poisoning of all the streams in Lake Superior, the abandoned electric barriers counted the biggest crop of lampreys ever caught in the Great Lakes. Due to the lamprey's life cycle, however, this isn’t a fair test, and the real results won’t be known until next year, although results have caused considerable dejection in some quarters, especially in the United States. (In Toronto, Dr. J. R. Diamond of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, told me, "I used to be known as a pessimist. Now I find myself trying to cheer people up. I tell them we’re not licked on the lamprey yet. But you know the Americans. They’re either way up or way down.” )
Each time the Porte Dauphine’s engine bells sounded, and the rustling of the water subsided as the ship came to a stop, a young Water Resources Commission chemist climbed the vertical steel ladder to the forecastle head to take his sample of water for bacteria tests. He swung a bottle on a cord, plopped it into the water ahead of the ship to avoid contamination
from the ship's hull, hauled it out as it drifted up to him underwater. He did this several times until the bottle was full. One time, as I watched him, he said cheerfully, “we go our merry way, polluting as we go. But we always pollute behind us." When wc cruised in to an index station close to Cleveland in the evening, the captain sent word down that there was a municipal dump marked offshore on his hydrographic chart, and the chemist asked if he'd stop the ship so that he could test for bacteria. As we came to a stop over the dump, one of the technical staff, a physicist, went down to the lab to the echo sounder, an instrument that will reveal objects in the water, including schools of fish. The paper in the instrument showed a lot of dark area, looking to me like tin cans and old corn flakes boxes. But the bacteriological tests (1 got the report next week in Toronto) were all negative.
A microscopic catch
At each index station the Porte Dauphine staff made hauls of the microscopic animal and plant organisms called plankton. This is done by allowing measured amounts of lake water to pass through a fine nylon net about the shape of an airport wind sock. When the net is rinsed down, after a catch, into a small glass jar, the water in the jar is tinted bright green with a cloud of wriggling forms which under the microscope appear in a multitude of bizarre shapes, all with big dark startled-looking eyes. One of the problems caused by the vast amounts of industrial waste going into the lakes, and by the salts left in the effluent from sewage treatment plants, is that these chemicals nourish plankton, as do the fertilizers drained off surrounding farm lands. Overproduction of plankton may liberate toxic material, and the decay of the organisms may use up oxygen to a degree where fish can't survive. There's a serious depletion now of oxygen in Lake Prie bottom water, and it is this overproduction of plankton that has at times turned the entire west end of the lake green. In Lake Michigan algae and suspended matter are so thick now that they arc causing problems to industry that uses Great Lakes water.
Some of the most important work being done by the Porte Dauphine is the gathering of information on meteorological conditions on the Great Lakes, of which not very much is known. Until now', it has not been known whether precipitation is the same on the lakes as on land. T his has a bearing on water-level predictions, and these, in turn, effect hydro operation and transportation. One thing being checked by the meteorological staff of the Porte Dauphine is a suspected stratification of the air over the Great Lakes, which may he responsible for some kind of pollution crossing the lakes and causing the blight known as tobacco fleck in Ontario crops.
The Porte Dauphine, which spends her winters almost alone on Lake Ontario, is gathering valuable information on winter weather conditions and ice movements. The time is probably coming when forecasts of ice movements will be made, which will lengthen the time of transportation on the lakes. In the meantime, the Porte Dauphine has been mistaken for an iceberg by the people of Hamilton and a ghost ship by the startled residents of Oswego, New' York, when her lights appeared out in the harbor one dark winter night during a snow storm.
1 got used to life on the Porte Dauphine, to the routine slowing and stopping at check points, to living out of sight of land, awaking to sec water rushing past tin open porthole, coming into Great Lakes docks as if we’d just completed an ocean crossing. (One small boy at Leamington called
to us from the dark. "Where are you from?" as if we’d just arrived from Pago Pago.) Life on board sometimes brought the need for a new look at the Great Lakes into sharp focus. One time, during mealtime, the mess steward, standing with his fist on his hips, swaying slightly, listening intently to a conversation among the technical staff about water pollution, reached over someone’s shoulder, removed an empty milk carton from the table, and. without turning or taking his eyes oil the speakers, opened the mess-room door and backhanded the carton overboard without
missing a word about the necessity of more controls on the lakes.
I left the Porte Dauphine at Port Stanley and walked up the road in the evening with the skipper of a huge tanker that was berthed behind the Porte Dauphine. He told me that his crew still insisted on getting their drinking water off Pelee Point, where the water is traditionally pure. "They'll pass up city water at the docks in Montreal to wait till they can dip it out at Pelee Point." he. said w ith disgust, looking at the yellow sludge around the harbor. He went on to tell me that service station
operators wait until he’s in dock before they flush all their oil out of their stations, knowing that he'll get blamed.
1 remembered something I w anted to ask Captain Hodge and went back to the slip where we'd tied up. There was water between the Porte Dauphine and the dock and she was sailing majestically out into the lake, all her lights on. With a sudden forsaken feeling. 1 headed for the bus to catch the train for Toronto. ★
MORE PICTURES OVERLEAF
Log of the seagoing scientists
She has been mistaken for a fresh-water iceberg and a mid-winter ghost. She sails constantly on apparently aimless, zig-zagging courses. The Porte Dauphine is committed to an endless search on the endlessly changing Great Lakes. She is •ching for knowledge—of temperatures, cur-
rents, lake-beds, winds, fish, eels, ice and plain filth