Changing Planet

PROJECT: ICE Documentary Portrays Changing Climate on the Great Lakes

Ice along the shore of Lake Michigan near Saugatuk (February 2013). Photo by Lisa Borre.

As the polar vortex descended on Washington, D.C. on Monday night, my husband and I joined Water Currents editor Brian Clark Howard for a private screening of PROJECT: ICE, a fascinating new documentary about the Great Lakes.

What was conceived as a documentary about ferries and shipping on the Great Lakes became something else. During filming, the film crew realized there was a bigger story about how climate change affects the lives and livelihoods of people living in the region.

“While conducting interviews, everyone kept talking about how the climate was changing,” executive producer Leslie Johnson explained to me. “It was totally unprompted, and we realized that this was an important part of the story.”

The movie is packed with history and information about the role of these vast inland seas in the industrial development of North America. It delves into the history of the railcar ferries at the Straits of Mackinac and documents the importance of ice in the lives of people living around the Great Lakes, including commercial fisherman on Lake Superior, recreational ice fishers, pond hockey players, ice climbers, Native American Ojibwe, and Mackinac Islanders.

View the PROJECT: ICE movie trailer:


For director and producer William Kleinert, the dramatic drop in lake levels was the most surprising discovery. Filming and production took place over a 27-month period, beginning in 2011 and ending in early 2013. This corresponded with Lakes Michigan and Huron falling to record low levels.

“We were shooting last winter on an inland lake near Charlevoix [Michigan]. We were standing on the ice, and the docks were over our heads at three to five feet above the normal ice level,” Kleinert said.

Co-producer Kevin Kusina was born and raised in Charlevoix. “This is the first winter in a long time that we’ve seen ice forming on Lake Michigan in December,” he explained during the Q&A after the screening. The lack of ice in recent years was a “depressing” realization for him while working on the film.

The imagery, insights, and observations about the changes underway are rich in detail and could stand alone as an equally compelling story. It’s almost like having two films rolled into one, but much of the historical background does provide an important backdrop to the modern-day challenges associated with the loss of ice on the Great Lakes.

Experts Henry Pollack, a University of Michigan professor and contributing author to the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC climate change report, and Marie Colton, former director of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab (GLERL), bring a scientific perspective to the story, describing the ecological impacts of climate change.

While watching the movie, I realized how rapidly our understanding of the science is advancing. In the past two years, scientists have learned a great deal about the interactions among evaporation, ice cover, and water temperature. Evaporation is now being measured year-round on all five of the Great Lakes.

As described in a previous post on the impacts of climate change on the Great Lakes, the dynamics are more complex than what is portrayed in the film, but the basic conclusion is the same. Most evaporation occurs in the fall and early winter when the lake is cooling, so the effect of ice cover “capping off” evaporation is not as important as once believed. Less ice cover does usually result in warmer water temperatures the following summer and higher evaporation rates in the fall.

The movie evoked memories of growing up near Lake Michigan: admiring the mountains of ice that form when frigid waves break along the lake’s eastern shore; skating, ice fishing and even driving a car on the thick ice on Beaver Island’s large, natural harbor; and listening to the loud pops, cracks, and groans in the black ice on the open lake. It was a reminder of how important ice is to the way of life and overall health of the lakes. It was also an alarming portrayal of all that’s at stake with a changing climate.

PROJECT: ICE was selected for a Science on Screen award by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and will be shown along with a science lecture in Ann Arbor later this year. It has been submitted to film festivals, and a limited release is expected by the end of the year.

PROJECT: ICE is a must-see for anyone who loves the Great Lakes or wants to learn more about the impacts of climate change.

Other related posts:

Lisa Borre is a lake conservationist, freelance writer, and avid sailor. With her husband, she co-founded LakeNet, a world lakes network, and co-wrote a sailing guide called “The Black Sea” based on their voyage around the sea in 2010. A native of the Great Lakes region, she served as coordinator of the Lake Champlain Basin Program in the 1990s. She is now an active member of the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network.


Lisa Borre is a lake conservationist, writer and avid sailor. A native of the Great Lakes region, she served as coordinator of the Lake Champlain Basin Program in the 1990s and co-founded LakeNet, a world lakes network that was active from 1998-2008. She is now a Senior Research Specialist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and an active member of the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON). She is also on the board of directors of the North American Lake Management Society (NALMS), the advisory council of the Lake Champlain Committee, and an associate investigator with the SAFER Project: Sensing the Americas' Freshwater Ecosystem Risk from Climate Change. She writes about global lake topics for this blog and speaks to local, regional and international groups about the impacts of climate change on lakes and the need to work together to sustainably manage lakes and their watersheds. With her husband, she co-wrote The Black Sea, a sailing guide based on their voyage there in 2010.
  • Jennifer Koney

    Having grown up in Michigan and having seen frozen waves on Lake Superior many, many years ago, PROJECT: ICE is a timely portrayal of the direct and real effects of climate change and needs to be seen by a wide audience. Bravo for launching such a valuable project!

  • Keen Latoski

    Having been born and raised in Northern Michigan I wonder if Mr. Kleinert knows that the water levels now are reflective of the water levels in the early 60s? And that during the late 70s everyone was screaming about how high the water levels were and the devastation it caused. That our current carp were an invasive species introduced into our waters? I have found that the water is more alive now like it used to be when I was growing up. The problem we face is pollution from people dumping (note The Badger and the tons of ash it dumps in Lake Michigan) in our beautiful waters and extracting it for sale to the highest bidder. That is where we should concentrate our efforts.

    • Thanks for the comment, Keen. If you have a chance to see the movie, you will understand that Bill Kleinert and his film crew have a firm grasp of the history of the Great Lakes, including water levels. The documentary, as the name implies, is focused on ice. They and others are very concerned about the 71 percent decline in ice cover on the Great Lakes over the past 40 years. This issue is not unrelated to water levels. The lack of ice, warming water temperatures, extreme droughts and heat waves — all attributed to climate change — have resulted in increased levels of evaporation, especially on Lakes Michigan and Huron. These are measurable changes that have occurred in the lake since the 1960s.

      The lake has been at below average levels for more than a decade, and if it were fluctuating as it has in the past, the lake would have already experienced high levels again, such as the 1970s event you describe. At the very least, the period of time between low and high lake levels has changed in recent decades. Because of the natural variation in water levels and the many factors involved, it’s more difficult to attribute the low levels seen in 2012-13 to climate change. High rates of evaporation combined with low rainfall were the main causes, but because evaporation is invisible for the most part, it doesn’t always come to mind as being an important issue. As has been seen in the Arctic, the loss of ice is perhaps one of the most visible signs — like a canary in coal mine — of the subtle but real changes underway. I applaud Kleinert and his team for bringing attention to this important issue.

      The effects of climate change go beyond water levels to include impacts to the overall ecological health of the lake, fisheries and even contributing to nuisance algae blooms. Invasive species, pollution and water extraction are important issues as well, but so is the concern for climate change and its effects on the Great Lakes. All of these things interact in ways that require an integrated approach to finding solutions. You can find related posts on some of the topics you mention here:

  • Marikay Johnson

    Following Keen Latoski’s earlier post…. Having been born in Michigan and summers spent ON THE WATER in St Mary’s straits and Huron since the early 60’s, the current water levels are reflective of the early 60’s but lower by at least a foot, giving me an additional 12 foot of waterfront. I don’t deny that pollution is a problem, but lake levels are a major concern to anyone who has property or boats and docks on the inlets and bays in the northern parts of the lakes…. they are now small ponds that are impossible to access.

    • Thanks for the comment and for sharing your own observations, Marikay. It’s good news that Lakes Michigan and Huron are higher than they were last year at this time, but they were still 14 inches below the long-term average in December, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers monthly bulletin. As explained in my reply to Keen, one of the biggest concerns is a longer-term trend of below average lake levels for more than a decade. Experts at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory warn that extreme high levels are also possible with climate change, but your concerns about lake levels are well-founded because it seems clear that the “natural” variability is already changing.


    I’m looking forward to seeing the movie

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