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5 ways to show love for the Great Lakes—and our planet—this winter

Spanning seven U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, the Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world. Of ultimate importance, they provide a source of drinking water for more than 40 million people and homes for thousands of species—from Monarch butterflies and dwarf lake irises, to lake sturgeon and Canada lynx.

As the Great Lakes nurture so much life, supporting its long-term health is the least we can do. This February, as temperatures remain cold and we’re spending less time outside, discover new ways you can show some love for the Great Lakes that give us so much.

A woman and boy snowshoe on a path through the woods.

Photo by: © Alessandro DiNoia/

1. Conserve energy use at home

In the wintertime, temperatures in Great Lakes cities and towns are often bone-chilling. For Chicago, February’s lowest temperatures typically hover in the 20s (Fahrenheit). In the northern part of the Great Lakes region however, Thunder Bay, Ontario often sees lows of just 1 degree! If you add in shorter days, and thus less daylight, it is no surprise that Great Lakes residents use more energy in the winter months to heat and light their homes.

Unfortunately, more energy use means more burning of fossil fuels—a non-renewable energy source contributing to global climate change. By conserving the energy we use during the winter, we can each do our part to reduce our carbon footprint.

So how do we do that? Save that precious heat and rely upon daylight! Open up your curtains or window treatments during the day to allow natural light in and close them at night, to allow for an extra layer of insulation. Seal off drafty windows and your fireplace (if you have one) to make sure heat doesn’t escape, and close vents in unused rooms. And if you have a ceiling fan, switch the fan’s rotation from counterclockwise to clockwise (there’s a switch for this on most ceiling fans!) to produce an updraft that will move the warm air that collects near your ceiling down into the rest of the room.

2. Take it easy on the road salt use

As we salt our streets and driveways, where does all that salt go? Unfortunately, when snow and ice melts, much of it finds its way into sewers and sometimes into local waterways. This can cause what scientists call “Freshwater Salinization Syndrome,” which basically means freshwater systems are getting saltier than they should be. Changing the chemical make-up of our freshwater ecosystems can be detrimental for the health of fishes that live in them. When it doesn’t wind up in waterways, road salt can accumulate on the side of the road, which is (perhaps oddly) attractive to animals like deer and moose who enjoy licking up salt, and thus cause more human-animal vehicle accidents.

You can help reduce aquatic pollution from road salt by using less of it when you can, or by encouraging your local government to use eco-friendly options when they’re preparing streets for snow or ice storms. For example, the state of Rhode Island has adopted several measures to reduce their road salt use, including using a salt-water solution.

3. Help track ice cover or contribute to other community science projects in your area

Community or citizen science is what happens when non-scientists volunteer their time to help scientists conduct ongoing research without the bounds of physical location. For example, Shedd’s Director of Freshwater Research Dr. Karen Murchie relies on community scientists to help her track the migrations of fish in the Great Lakes, which happens within just a few short weeks, by the tens of thousands, across the region. No matter who you are or your educational background, you can help with projects like Dr. Murchie’s!

For example, IceWatch USA is a program where you can help record ice cover on a lake, bay or river of your choosing. What you input into the project’s database will be compared to other reports and shared with scientists looking to understand the effects of climate change on plants and animals in the U.S. They also host an IceWatch Canada, for our neighbors to the north.

Not interested in tracking ice cover? The platform iNaturalist is home to many community science projects, all of which need contributions from people like you. There, you can find projects like Shedd’s Great Lakes Fish Finder app, which is helping us track populations of fish in the Great Lakes.

4. Idle your car less and advocate for others to do the same

If you own a car, you’re likely familiar with the practice of idling your car so that it’s nice and toasty when you’re ready to drive to your destination. Some also believe it to be better for your car’s engine in winter months. But this practice comes at a big cost. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, research estimates that idling heavy-duty and light-duty vehicles wastes some 6 billion gallons of fuel annually and about half of that is attributable to personal vehicles, which generate about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions—a harmful Earth-warming gas contributing to the climate crisis.

You can help cut back on pollution from cars by choosing to idle less, especially in the wintertime. For modern cars, most manufacturers recommend avoiding idling and instead driving off gently after running the vehicle for about 30 seconds, even on the coldest days. This also makes the car—and your cabin—warm up faster than just idling.

If you aren’t a car-owner, you can advocate for other community vehicles to cut back on idle time. This includes school buses, taxis, police cars, ambulances and more. For example, residents of southwestern Detroit are advocating for a more effective anti-idling ordinance after several studies noted harmful health impacts on residents, including children.

5. Explore the Great Lakes in the winter!

If you’re not from the Great Lakes region, choosing to spend time in the snow and cold might seem crazy, but it’s also one of the most beautiful times to explore nature. Enjoy a stroll down your street when it snows and you might just feel like you’re in a snow globe. If you’re feeling adventurous, throw on a few layers and try out winter activities like snow shoeing, snow tubing, skiing, ice fishing or ice skating. Better yet, explore what you can only see in the winter—the ice caves of the Apostle Island National Lakeshore. In the words of Travel Wisconsin, “the cold won’t take your breath away if you’re bundled up, but [Nature’s] artistry will.”