programmes  —  Drain the Great Lakes

Drain The Great Lakes – The Great Lakes are the largest system of fresh water on earth, containing roughly 20 per cent of the world supply. Only the polar ice caps hold more. The Lakes contain enough water to cover the entire surface of the continental United States to a depth of 9 feet. Over 37 million people live by their shores in some of greatest cities in the world. This groundbreaking television program pulls a virtual plug on the huge lakes, using computer-generated imagery to reveal hidden secrets of their human history and changing geological past.

Drain the Great Lakes focuses on the lakes’ unseen features. It deploys the latest and most cutting-edge scientific survey equipment and processes, expert testimony, and state of the art computer animation to expose the invisible worlds beneath their surface.

The show reveals the differing underwater characteristics of each of the Great Lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and also the most spectacular waterfall in North America, Niagara Falls. It highlights the specific and unique features that provide key clues to the history of the Great Lakes and their creation. It lays bare geographical features and manmade objects impossible to see from the surface. We will take it even further: we won’t just tell the story of the feature and see it underwater; our advanced techniques allow us to “remove” the water and see each element in all its glory. This is an incredible journey into unexplored terrain less familiar than the surface of the moon.

The time taken by a single drop of water to make it through the lakes from Lake Superior to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River via Niagara Falls can be over 300 years. This is a journey requiring over 10,000 years of time-travel to reveal the origins of the Lakes themselves. Our own journey will take less than a hour to reveal some of the most amazing underwater features.

The stories we tell at every lake are different. Each lake holds unsuspected and varied geological features. One harbours a submerged waterfall betraying water levels over 7,000 years ago. Another hides an enormous trans-lake ridge where researchers are currently finding evidence of the presence of early man. And a bizarre crater discovered only recently – the result of a meteorite crashing to earth millions of years ago? We bring understanding to the alien landscape down in the deepest parts of the largest lake.

Drain the Great Lakes reveals what is on the lakebed when we remove the water. This includes some of the most impressive shipwrecks in the world. Astonishingly, until now the lakes’ cold water has preserved them perfectly: among them the most iconic of them all – the Edmund Fitzgerald. We also show the true extent of the latest and most controversial species to invade the Great Lakes – mussels. We reveal how they are changing the entire eco-system of the lakes inside a mere two decades.

The Great Lakes are the largest system of surface fresh water on earth, containing roughly 20 per cent of the world supply. Only the polar ice caps hold more. The lakes contain enough water to cover the entire surface of the Continental United States to a depth of nearly 10 feet. Starting from East to West, Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior span more than 750 miles; their combined shorelines equal almost half the circumference of the earth.

The average time a drop of water remains in each lake ranges from 2.7 years for Lake Erie, to 6 years for Ontario, 21 years for Huron, 62 years for Michigan and a massive 173 years for Lake Superior.

In volume, Lake Superior is the largest at over 12,000 cubic kilometers or nearly 3000 cubic miles. It is also the deepest at over 400 meters, 1300 feet and the coldest of the five lakes. Superior could contain all the other Great Lakes and three more Lake Eries as well.

If you'd stood at the location of the Great Lakes 20,000 years ago, a massive ice sheet would have engulfed the area. This glacier is thought to have been between 5 and 6 thousand feet thick, towering far above even the tallest buildings in Chicago and Toronto. It was this ice sheet that was responsible for creating the Great Lakes as we know them now. Existing for thousands of years and just one of several glaciations, the ice gouged out the troughs which subsequently filled with meltwater as the glaciers retreated due to a warming climate.

Between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and third longest in the world - the Mackinac Bridge. Opened in 1957, the bridge is 26,372 feet in length. It spans the Mackinac straits, where an ancient riverbed lies hidden beneath the water.

The Mackinac Channel is a 40 km long gorge running directly under the central point of the bridge. It was first described in 1938 using early bathymetric recording instruments. Using more sophisticated side scan and multi beam technology, the gorge can now be show in much greater detail.

The Bruce Peninsula which divides Lake Huron from Georgian Bay is the continuation of the escarpment over which Niagara Falls flow. A World Biosphere Reserve, its rugged cliffs are host to an array of ecological habitats no longer seen in the rest of Ontario due to human activities such as deforestation and agriculture. The shore overlooks the Fathom Five National Park, Canada's first National Marine Conservation Area. Here under the water there is evidence of the lakes' turbulent past, both geological and nautical. Home to some of Canada's best dives sites, in addition to well preserved shipwrecks, ancient waterfalls and cascades, submerged tree trunks have been found dating back almost 7half thousand years.

Evidence has emerged that humans were present in North America during the formation of the Great Lakes. Scientists suspect that 8,000 year old structural remains between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are ancient walls designed by hunters to channel caribou into 'killing pens or zones'.

Niagara Falls has moved just over 7 miles, nearly 11 half kilometres closer to Lake Erie from Lake Ontario in the 12,000 years since it began to form, with powerful erosive forces carving through the Niagara Escarpment creating the gorge along its path.(Tinkler et. al., 1994; Niagara Parks, 2011; Sly & Lewis 1972). If it carries on at a similar rate it will eventually reach Lake Erie in 30 thousand years or so, but by then given the changing nature of the bedrock, the falls will have degenerated into a series of rapids and cascades.

Long Point on Lake Erie was designated in 1986 as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The 26,250 hectare reserve encompasses a rich mosaic of ecological systems associated with sand spit formations in the Great Lakes (it is the largest) as well as some of the remaining forest tracts of ancient 'Carolinian Canada'. The variety of habitats supports a rich flora and fauna, and Long Point is an internationally important stop-over point for many migratory birds and that endurance insect, the Monarch butterfly.

Located in Lake Ontario at the eastern end close to the outlet into the St Lawrence and straddling the US/Canada border is a highly unusual geological feature. Charity Shoal, a raised circular formation 20 miles from shore (and home to a lighthouse) is approximately one kilometre in diameter and is no more than 20 metres deep. Theories range from it being the crater of a long extinct volcano, to a naturally occurring sinkhole, but the most likely explanation from recent survey work is that it could be an extra-terrestrial impact crater.

The Great Lakes are littered with shipwrecks. It is thought that more than 6,000 are scattered along the bottom of the lakes, but many remain to be discovered. The cold freshwater acts as a fantastic preservative, so many of the wrecks that are wooden are in extremely good condition in spite of spending over a hundred years under water.

Thunder Bay in northwest Lake Huron is known to be one of the most dangerous stretches of water on the lakes, subject to such extreme and unpredictable weather that the area has been nicknamed 'Shipwreck Alley'. Designated in 2000 as a National Marine Sanctuary and managed jointly by NOAA and the State of Michigan, its' 448-square-mile protects one of America's best-preserved and nationally-significant collections of shipwrecks with over 200 vessels in and around Thunder Bay. To date, more than 50 shipwrecks have been discovered within the sanctuary and an additional 30 wrecks have been located outside of the sanctuary boundaries.

Whitefish Point in Lake Superior is where more ships have been lost than in any other part of the Great Lakes. This place has become known as the 'Graveyard of Ships', and is the location of the most infamous wreck to date, the bulk carrier, Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Edmund Fitzgerald at 729 feet and 13,632 gross tons, one of the largest cargo vessels on the Great Lakes sank 17 miles north, north west of Whitefish Point in 163 meters, 535 feet of water on the 10th November, 1975. All 29 men on board were lost in one of Lake Superior's most terrible tragedies. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) has conducted three official underwater expeditions to the wreck, 1989, 1994, and 1995, the last to recover the bell at the request of the relatives of the lost crew.

Diving is now prohibited on the Edmund Fitzgerald. As she lies in Canadian waters she comes under the jurisdiction of the Ontario provincial government and under the Ontario Heritage Act. It is now illegal to go within 500 metres of the wreck without the appropriate licence.

Shipping in the Great Lakes has had a major impact on their ecology. Quagga and zebra mussels were introduced to the lake system in the mid 1980s. (Tom Nalepa pers comm 2011). The bivalve molluscs most likely arrived in the ballast water of cargo vessels that had travelled from the Black Sea region in Central Asia. Within 20 years, the mussels having reproduced at an extraordinary rate are now found in every one of the Great Lakes. Lake Superior is least affected, the depth, the temperature and underlying geology not providing a conducive environment for growth.

Male and female mussels exist in equal numbers in the population. They time the simultaneous release of their eggs and sperm by responding to environmental cues such as water temperature. Just one mature female can produce over one million eggs, a male, billions of sperm. As these gametes mix in the water column, the result is a soup of fertilised eggs.

Fertilised mussel eggs develop into mobile larvae. These may travel vast distances driven by currents in the water or move only a few inches, before finding any suitable surface to settle on. This surface could be anything solid; from rocks to shipwrecks, or even each other. Here, they develop into sessile adults. Over the course of a year or so the whole reproductive cycle starts again.

Invasive mussels, though individually small in size, have become the most troublesome freshwater biofouling organism in North America. They have had a huge economic impact, blocking pipes that deliver water to cities, factories and power plants; attaching in enormous numbers to ship and boat hulls, marine structures and navigational buoys; and covering beaches with sharp-edged mussel shells and rotting mussel flesh. In the United States, congressional researchers estimated the mussel cost the power industry alone $3.1 billion in the 1993-1999 period, with its impact on industries, businesses, and communities over $5 billion.

Mussels are filter feeders, drawing in and eating tiny particulate, organic matter in the water. Each mussel can filter approximately one litre of water a day from which most of the suspended particles are extracted. These nutrients are removed from the Lakes' food chain, thus affecting the entire foodweb. With the water becoming clearer it has paved the way for another environmental catastrophe in the Lakes.

In Lake Michigan, the water clarity allows more light to penetrate the water. This has given a native algae, Cladophora, the chance to grow in massive quantities, smothering other life on the lake bottom. When the algae dies, it either washes up in huge mats on the shore where it rots down releasing a pungent odor that smells like sewage or it collects in eddies and natural depressions on the lake floor where it slowly decays producing toxins which can poison fish and birds.

Produced and directed by
CRISPIN SADLER
WAYNE ABBOTT

Narrated by
RUSSELL BOULTER

Music Composed by
PETER MUNDINGER

Director of Photography
WAYNE ABBOTT

Written by
WAYNE ABBOTT
CRISPIN SADLER
JEREMY EVANS

Editor
WAYNE ABBOTT

Underwater Photography
DAN STEVENSON
JIM KOZMIK

Dive Team
CHRISTIAAN CLOETE
RALPH HOSKINS
MIKE ROBERTSON

Production Manager
LEA ALDRIDGE (UK)
JOCELYNE ABBOTT (Canada)

Production Coordinator
TIM EVANS

Research
LAURA ABBOTT
ROB MORGAN

Visual Effects and Animation
422 SOUTH:

Animation Director
ANDY DAVIES-COWARD

Senior Animator
RICHARD FRASER

Post Production Facilities
MALLINSON TELEVISON PRODUCTIONS

On-Line Editor and Colorist
SCOTT McCARTNEY
JOHN SACKEY

Sound Design and Mix
BARBERSHOP SOUND STUDIOS:
ROB THOMPSON
RUSSELL SKELLON

With Special Thanks to
STEVE BLASCO - GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA
TOM FARNQUIST - GREAT LAKES SHIPWRECK HISTORICAL SOCIETY
RUSS GREEN - THUNDER BAY NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY
TROY HOLCOMBE - TEXAS A & M UNIVERSITY
TOM NALEPA - GREAT LAKES ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH LABORATORY
FRED OLIFF AND SCOTT YOUNGBLUT - CANADIAN HYDROGRAPHIC SERVICE
JOHN O'SHEA - UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
CHRIS OTTO – NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
HANS VAN SUMEREN - GREAT LAKES WATER STUDIES INSTITUTE
NIGEL WATTRUS & STEVE COLMAN - LARGE LAKES OBSERVATORY,
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
CANADIAN HYDROGRAPHIC SERVICE
NATIONAL GEOPHYSICAL DATA CENTER
NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
PARKS CANADA
SAND HILL PARK, ONTARIO


Additional Thanks
CARIS
EDGETECH
KONGSBERG MARITIME

Underwater Footage of Edmund Fitzgerald
GREAT LAKES SHIPWRECK HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Production Executive for Discovery Channel Canada
BRUCE GLAWSON

Executive Producer for National Geographic Channels
RICHARD J. WELLS

Executive in Charge of Production for National Geographic Channels
STEVE BURNS

Produced with the participation of the
 
Canada Media Fund/Fond des medias du Canada

with the assistance of

The Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit

Produced in association with

National Geographic Channels

and

Discovery Channel Canada

A United Kingdom-Canada co-production

© 2011
Mallinson Sadler Productions
Northern Sky Entertainment

Deployment of the University of Texas autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and finding the wreck of the Egyptian, Thunderbay National Marine Sanctuary, Lake Huron
Diving the wreck of the John B Cowle, Lake Superior, with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society
Filming the Niagara Gorge
Driving north across the Mackinac Bridge
Filming the Grand Sable Banks sand dunes, Picture Rocks National Lakeshore, Lake Superior
Large Lakes Observatory research vessel, Blue Heron, on western Lake Superior near Duluth, Minnesota
Jib Arm filming at Whitefish Point, Lake Superior