A Last Love Letter To The Great Lakes Book Club

34:05 minutes

a storm brews over an expansive lake
Lake Superior, taken by SciFri producer and Book Club leader Christie Taylor.

illustrated stack of books with text "scifri book club"

This story is a part of our winter Book Club conversation about Dan Egan’s book ‘The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.’ Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or record a voice message on the Science Friday VoxPop app.

illustrated scene of fish in water and mussels in the background. in the center is a bright red salmon, with the words 'there's something in the water' and the logo reading 'science friday'

Join The Club, In Person!

The on-air discussion may be wrapping up, but it’s not too late to dive into the SciFri Book Club festivities. Join local researchers and author Dan Egan on February 20 in New York City for There’s Something In The Water, a live event!

The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s surface drinking water, with Lake Superior holding half of that alone. The lakes stretch from New York to Minnesota, and cover a surface area of nearly 100,000 square miles—large enough to cover the entire state of Colorado. 

And they’re teeming with life. Fish, phytoplankton, birds, even butterflies call the lakes home for some portion of their lives. But not all is calm in the waters. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan tells the story of the changes that have unbalanced these ecosystems since the St. Lawrence Seaway was first made navigable for cargo ships and, with them, invasive species, like sea lampreys, alewives, quagga mussels and, perhaps soon, Asian carp.

The Science Friday Book Club has spent a month swimming in Great Lakes science. We’ve pondered the value of native fish to ecosystem resiliency, the threats facing people’s access to clean drinking water, and the influence of invasive species. SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor, Wayne State University ecologist Donna Kashian, and Wisconsin-based journalist Peter Annin discuss potential paths to a healthy future, from ongoing restoration efforts to protective policies and new research.

Throughout the Book Club, we learned and shared stories about the Great Lakes and beyond. Explore below!

We Remembered Memories Of The Great Lakes’ Natural Wonder

Kayaking through a snow globe of stars. Marveling at migrating monarch butterflies. Listening to a lamenting lone loon. On social media and the SciFri VoxPop app, you told us some of your favorite memories of the Great Lakes—love letters to these natural wonders.

Here’s book author Dan Egan’s father, Dick Egan, delivering his memory of the Great Lakes:

I’m Dick Egan, author Dan Egan’s father. In the book, Dan talks about how big the lakes and how it’s really hard for anyone who doesn’t live around or near them or has never seen them to imagine the size. When Dan was about 3 or 4 years old, I was a sailor. I was just learning to sail, and we were sailing across Green Bay from the Door County Peninsula in Wisconsin to upper Michigan. We encountered a very, very large storm—huge waves. My wife was hollering at me, everything was bouncing around, and we wondered where Dan was. He was down in the cabin lying fast asleep. That was a great memory of the lakes for me.

See more stories here.

We Found Out That Birds Are A Little Fishy

a close up of a spotted gar fish
Spotted Gar. They are native to Great Lakes waterways and other water in North America. This one was found in a bayou in Louisiana. Credit: Solomon David

“If we think about the tree of life, all the vertebrates are on a particular branch, and fishes, certain types of fishes, branched off, and then birds went another direction. But really, when we think about it scientifically speaking, they’re all part of the same group that we would actually call fish,” explains fish ecologist Solomon David in our Book Club interview on native fish.

“The bird people like to say that birds are cool because they’re dinosaurs, but really they’re all fish. I think it shows that we can all get along, and think that biodiversity is really cool.”

We Shared Experiences With Getting Access To Drinking Water

Millions rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. But clean, safe drinking water isn’t always available. Between 2016 and 2019, almost 130 million people in the U.S. received their drinking water from a system that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act—the federal law meant to protect drinking water. Of those 130 million, about 44 million people received water from systems that violated a health-based standard, says Kristi Pullen Fedinick, director of science and data at the Natural Resources Defense Council who helped analyze the data. The report also found a strong connection that communities that are poorer or dominated by people of color are being hit the hardest.

“When we did look at the national data, we found that race really had the strongest relationship to slow and ineffective enforcement of that federal drinking water law across all communities.”

You shared some of your stories and concerns about drinking water access.

an instagram story screenshot that reads, "currently 60 boil water advisories in ontario. 40 of them are for first nations reserves" an instagram post that reads "lack of transparency about the water distribution processes, procedures and infrastructure age"

We Learned About The Impacts Of Invasive Species

From quagga mussels to blood-sucking sea lampreys, invasive species have altered the Great Lakes’ ecosystems. We learned about non-natives and the role they play in environments everywhere. Here are some of your stories.

We Discussed Our Hopes And Fears About The Future Of These Bodies Of Water

Donna Kashian, SciFri Book Club reader and biology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan on the SciFri VoxPop App

What I have learned from this book is that despite the continued onslaught of offenses against the Great Lakes, the lakes continue on. They seem to hit new balances or equilibriums despite the fact that they are much changed and less stable than they were 40 years ago. For the future, I fear a threat that they may not be able to overcome would be water withdrawals. And with climate change and droughts out west, there will be more and more pressure to remove water from its basin. They will not recover from this.

Stay up to speed with the SciFri Book Club Newsletter!

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Segment Guests

Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

Donna Kashian

Donna Kashian is a professor of Biological Sciences at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Peter Annin

Peter Annin is author of The Great Lakes Water Wars (2006) and director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.

Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young is Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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