The following case study is part of a forthcoming NPS handbook on climate change entitled “Climate Change and Cultural Resources: Impact Assessments and Case Studies.”  The original author is Caitlin Smith.

Outer Island Lighthouse

Outer Island Lighthouse, NPS photo

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is composed of a 21-island archipelago and a portion of Wiscon­sin’s Bayfield Peninsula extending out into Lake Superior. The Islands are a unique national treasure, possessing rich collections of natural, cultural, and eth­nographic histories. The park features the most extensive and well-preserved collection of lighthouses in the National Park System, including six which have been recognized as the largest and finest historic lighthouses in the nation. Nu­merous other historic cabin sites, logging camps, quarries, 1930s and 1940s fishing camps, a collection of 19th and early 20th century shipwrecks, and resources related to Ojibwe heritage are contained within and around the park (Saunders et al. 2011).

People have made their homes in and around the Apostle Islands for thousands of years. The land and environment are critically tied to human history; therefore, natural resources such as trees, wildlife, and Lake Superior’s waters and wetlands, are considered cultural resources (Magari 2011, personal communication). Given the nature of this relationship, changes to the Great Lakes climate may significantly im­pact the cultural resources of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The Garage sea cave

The Garage sea cave, NPS photo

Scientists predict significant shifts in habitat, changes to local aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and greater stress from invasive species in the Great Lakes Region as a result of climate change. Lower lake levels and increased erosion from stronger storms and winter waves on shorelines as lake ice diminishes are also expected to transform the Great Lakes environment (WICCI 2009; Shramm and Loehman 2010; Saunders et al. 2011). All of these changes will greatly impact the cultural landscape of the park, including corrosion of shipwrecks in and around the Apostle Islands due to warmer water temperatures. The cold, low oxygen environment on Lake Superior has allowed these shipwrecks to remain remarkably preserved. However, warmer waters will increase biotic activity and oxygen levels, accelerating corro­sion of iron and organic materials under water (Cooper 2011, personal communica­tion). Shoreline erosion is actively damaging upland prehistoric archeological sites at Stockton Island, and threatening historic structures at Outer Island and Raspberry Island Light Station (Cooper 2011, personal communication; Saunders et al. 2011).

Significant threats of climate change will also impact the people who live in and around the Apostle Islands, and consider this area their home. Native and non-na­tive communities in the region have always had a strong relationship with the natural environment. In particular, cultural traditions of the Red Cliff and Bad River Bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa, traditionally referred to as the Ojibwe and who consider the Apostle Islands the sacred birthplace of their nation, will be affected (NPCA 2007).

ojibwe elder

Ojibwe elder harvests birch bark for traditional household use, photo courtesy of Great Lakes Indians Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC)

Traditional Ojibwe activities such as fishing, harvesting manoomin (wild rice), and harvesting products from local trees such as paper birch, are essential components of their cultural identity. Manoomin, which translates to “sacred berry”, is har­vested for food, use in ceremonies, and as a source of revenue (GLITC 2004). Birch bark is thoroughly integrated into the materials of daily life; used in various crafts, household items, canoes, and rice harvesting tools (Magari 2011, personal communi­cation). These traditional lifeways are likely to be affected by changes in the region’s climate (Hoene 2010; Magari 2011, personal communication; Saunders et al. 2011).

Manoomin is grown on the Kakagon Bad River Sloughs-16,000 acres of Lake Supe­rior wetlands known to some as “The Everglades of Wisconsin” (GLITC 2004). The harvest depends on a sensitive balance of weather and water conditions. Record low water levels were documented in 2007 when Lake Superior was 22 inches below full, causing the surrounding Kakagon Sloughs to turn into mudflats and destroying the manoomin harvest (Hoene 2010). Meanwhile, the Great Lakes climate may no lon­ger meet the habitat requirements of spruce-fir forests in their current range, or of individual species including quaking aspen, northern white cedar, balsam fir, sugar maple, and the culturally significant paper birch (Saunders et al. 2011).

Climate change presents new challenges to sustaining cultural traditions closely tied to environmental conditions . Important cultural traditions may be lost as a result of a dynamically changing landscape. However, the legacy of climate change will be one of cultural change manifest in how we respond, adapt, and interpret the chang­ing nature of our natural and cultural resources. At Apostle Islands, park managers and educators are working in cooperation with the Ojibwe tribes to address the re­alities of climate change in order to preserve the cultural treasures and traditions of the Great Lakes for generations to come.

Sources Cited:
1.  Cooper, David J. Cultural Resource Specialist at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, personal communication regarding climate change effects to un­derwater archeological features at Apostle Islands NL, July 2011.
2.  Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council (GLITC), Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, last modified 2005,
3.  Hoene, Nancy. “Climate Change: an Ojibwe Perspective”, Minnesota Sea Grant: March 2010.
4.  Monica Magari, Climate Change Educator at Apostle Islands National Lake­shore, personal communication regarding climate change effects to Ojibwe Culture in the Lake Superior region, July 2011.
5.  National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), National Parks of the Great Lakes: Resource Assessments of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, July 2007, p. 25-43.
6.  Saunders, Stephan, Dan Findlay, Tom Easley, and Theo Spencer, “Great Lakes National Parks in Peril: the threats of climate disruption”, Rocky Mountain Climate Organization: July 2011, p. 1-61.
7.  Schramm, Amanda and Rachel Loehman, Understanding the science of cli­mate change: Talking points -impacts to the Great Lakes. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/NRR—2010/224. National Park Service: 2010, Fort Collins, Colorado.
8.  Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), Wisconsin’s Changing Climate: Impacts and Adaptation, “Climate Change in Wisconsin: Past, Present, and Future”, 2011, p.14-33