The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
by Dan Egan

Overview -

The Great Lakes--Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior--hold 20 percent of the world's supply of surface fresh water and provide sustenance, work and recreation for tens of millions of Americans. But they are under threat as never before, and their problems are spreading across the continent.  Read more...

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More About The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

The Great Lakes--Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior--hold 20 percent of the world's supply of surface fresh water and provide sustenance, work and recreation for tens of millions of Americans. But they are under threat as never before, and their problems are spreading across the continent. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is prize-winning reporter Dan Egan's compulsively readable portrait of an ecological catastrophe happening right before our eyes, blending the epic story of the lakes with an examination of the perils they face and the ways we can restore and preserve them for generations to come.

For thousands of years the pristine Great Lakes were separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the roaring Niagara Falls and from the Mississippi River basin by a "sub-continental divide." Beginning in the late 1800s, these barriers were circumvented to attract oceangoing freighters from the Atlantic and to allow Chicago's sewage to float out to the Mississippi. These were engineering marvels in their time--and the changes in Chicago arrested a deadly cycle of waterborne illnesses--but they have had horrendous unforeseen consequences. Egan provides a chilling account of how sea lamprey, zebra and quagga mussels and other invaders have made their way into the lakes, decimating native species and largely destroying the age-old ecosystem. And because the lakes are no longer isolated, the invaders now threaten water intake pipes, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure across the country.

Egan also explores why outbreaks of toxic algae stemming from the overapplication of farm fertilizer have left massive biological "dead zones" that threaten the supply of fresh water. He examines fluctuations in the levels of the lakes caused by manmade climate change and overzealous dredging of shipping channels. And he reports on the chronic threats to siphon off Great Lakes water to slake drier regions of America or to be sold abroad.

In an age when dire problems like the Flint water crisis or the California drought bring ever more attention to the indispensability of safe, clean, easily available water, The Death and the Life of the Great Lakes is a powerful paean to what is arguably our most precious resource, an urgent examination of what threatens it and a convincing call to arms about the relatively simple things we need to do to protect it.

  • ISBN-13: 9780393246438
  • ISBN-10: 0393246434
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • Publish Date: March 2017
  • Page Count: 384
  • Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Science > Environmental Science
Books > History > United States - State & Local - Midwest
Books > Nature > Ecosystems & Habitats - Lakes, Ponds & Swamps

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2017-01-02
  • Reviewer: Staff

Egan, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, effectively calls attention to the inherent fragility of the Great Lakes in this thought-provoking investigation, providing a modern history of the lakesErie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superiorand the problems that have plagued them. He takes readers beneath the lakes shimmering surface and illuminates an ongoing and unparalleled ecological unraveling. Egan starts the discussion by examining the 1950s construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks, canals, and channels connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Supporters had hoped landlocked cities such as Chicago and Cleveland would in time become global commercial ports rivaling New York City and Tokyo. Subsequent chapters deal with some of the projects unintended consequences. Non-native species began showing up in the Great Lakes. Zebra mussels, once found primarily in the Caspian and Black Sea basins, hitchhiked their way across the Atlantic in the ballast tanks of freighters. Able to fuse themselves to hard surfaces and grow in wickedly sharp clusters, zebra mussels can clog pipes, cause significant damage to boats, and suck the planktonthe lifeout of the waters they invade. Egan highlights a range of issues that have affected these crucial waterways for decades. (Mar.)

BookPage Reviews

Troubled waters

The vastness and untamed energy of oceans, seas and lakes both fascinate and frighten us. Two new books explore our complex relationships with iconic American bodies of water.

In his vivid The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, University of Florida historian Jack E. Davis narrates the history of the Gulf of Mexico from its origins in the Pleistocene epoch and its flourishing aboriginal cultures—still evident in burial and ceremonial mounds. Davis traces various eras of exploration and conquest by Spanish, British and French explorers, the development of towns on the Gulf as tourist destinations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and oil booms and ecological catastrophes of the late 20th century. Along the way, we meet figures who shaped the history of the Gulf: ethnologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, who explored the ancient mounds; 16th-century Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; and Randy Wayne White, the fishing guide (and bestselling author) whose promotion of the tarpon lured hundreds of anglers to the Gulf Coast.

Though Gulf waters once teemed with “crabs, shrimp, and curious jumping fish called the mullet,” by the mid-20th century, the thirst for development had disastrous consequences. In the 1960s, many scientists recommended eradicating mangroves, which prevent erosion, in order to build condominiums closer to the water. When beaches began to erode, communities built seawalls, which actually worsened the problem. As Davis demonstrates in this absorbing narrative, the history of the Gulf teaches us that nature is most generous whenever we respect its sovereignty.

The Great Lakes span 94,000 square miles and provide 20 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water. Yet, as award-winning journalist Dan Egan points out in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, these inland seas face challenges unimaginable when explorer Jean Nicolet first paddled across Lake Huron in the 17th century. At that time, the Great Lakes were isolated from the Atlantic, unreachable by boat not only because of their unnavigable shorelines but also because of the challenges of crossing waterfalls. With the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, begun in 1955, ships gained what Egan calls a “front door” to the lakes, turning cities like Chicago into inland ports.

By the mid-20th century, industrial and municipal pollution created dead zones in the lakes. While the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 prompted some recovery, the law didn’t prevent ships from dumping contaminated ballast. Egan chronicles the ways that such pollution has decimated native fish populations, created toxic algae outbreaks and introduced the DNA of non-native species into the lakes. In this compelling account, Egan issues a clarion call for re-imagining the future of the Great Lakes.


This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BAM Customer Reviews