This past year has thrown into focus just how important water levels of the Great Lakes can be to life onshore.
Levels for the Great Lakes have been dancing around record highs for much of this year. Storms coming onshore over this year’s elevated lakes caused rapid erosion that threatened homes. Drownings were up 50 percent across the Great Lakes through parts of this year, in part, because of elevated lake levels. As Lakes Michigan and Huron slide up toward the record again, it’s important to note that lake level uncertainty could be a feature of onshore life well into the future.
Lakes Michigan and Huron are 35 inches above their average November levels, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They’ll likely start the new year 11 inches higher than they started 2019.
Precipitation and evaporation have a strong effect on Great Lakes’ levels. In recent years, heavier-than-usual spring rains have driven higher lake levels, Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Corps of Engineers in Detroit, told USA Today last month.
While long-term forecasts of Great Lakes levels are unreliable, current climate models predict that the Midwest will see more precipitation in more extreme storm events. The third National Climate Assessment, published in 2014, predicts increases in precipitation of up to 4 inches for parts of the Great Lakes basin over the next century.
That’s not the entire story of future lake levels, though. The fourth National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, shows that, despite increased precipitation, lake levels could drop on average because less ice cover in the winter and warmer temperatures will increase evaporation. Lakes Michigan and Huron could drop 6 inches (“with a wide range of uncertainty”) over this century. A drop of that size could significantly impact the shipping industry and coastal communities.
The 2018 climate assessment notes that a drop in lake levels could drive up shipping costs since they couldn’t carry as much cargo.
The same report says less ice coverage could mean more damage to coastal communities during winter storms.
Increased precipitation and changes to lake levels can have other rippling effects on the economy and quality of life. The 2018 assessment says, “Higher temperatures, increasing variation in precipitation patterns and changes in lake levels are likely to increase the vulnerability of these systems to extreme events … compounding already existing stressors.”
High lake levels are eroding beaches at a rate that threatens humans and animals. Rapid erosion from storms during periods of elevated water levels in October threatened homes and public parks, MLive reported. Earlier this year, high lake levels swept away nests of piping plovers, further imperiling the endangered bird. Future lake level variability and unpredictability make both of these issues more difficult to address.
Climate has already changed due to human activities and some future changes will happen, even if we stopped emitting all carbon today.
But, that’s not a reason to despair. It’s not too late to avoid some of climate change’s worst effects. And it’s never too early to begin preparing for the change that’s already coming down the pike. A medley of prevention and adaptation is necessary to face down the coming natural and climate-driven changes to lake levels and across Michigan.
About the writer: Andrew Blok wrote this for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, where he is the eco-journalism intern.