Great Lakes’ record levels expected to continue in 2020

If you are following our State Parks Centennial Trek on our YouTube channel this year, you have heard us talk quite a bit about higher water levels in the Great Lakes. Those higher levels have impacted the state parks significantly in some cases. We have seen much smaller beaches at a number of parks, leaving some visitors disappointed. People may have enjoyed time on a broad, sandy swath in years past only to find a flooded shoreline this year. 

Those wondering whether the water levels really are that much higher can stop wondering. The water levels for lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron are at or near record levels. Lake Superior set record-high levels during several months in 2019. Lakes Michigan and Huron are at their highest levels since 1986, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District. 

Click the graph above to see a larger version. Note the Army Corps of Engineers considers lakes Michigan and Huron to be one lake for measurement purposes.

The Corps has been tracking water levels regularly since 1918. (Make sure you are referencing the water levels correctly when reviewing data. The Army Corps of Engineers refers to water levels by the elevation of their surface above sea level, not the depth of the lake.) 

The foot-washing station at Cheboygan State Park, designed to let you wash sand off your feet as you exit the beach, was at the water’s edge this summer!

Per the experts at a policy forum I attended recently, the primary things contributing to lake levels are changing weather patterns and the resulting changes of water supply to the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Basin is defined as the Great Lakes, whose headwaters start in Lake Superior and whose outlet is over Niagara Falls, down the St. Lawrence River, then out to the Atlantic Ocean. But it also involves the land within that region. There are 14,000 miles of shore, 95,000 square miles of water, and 200,000 square miles of land that encompasses eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. 

Why are Great Lakes levels higher?

Very cold winters returning to the region the past few years along with near-record ice cover on the lakes caused the unusual rise. Combine that with what NOAA reported as the wettest 60-month period in 120 years for the Great Lakes Basin in terms of rainfall and you get record-high levels.

Three main factors affect the net total water supply in the Great Lakes Basin. They are precipitation plus runoff minus evaporation. The Great Lakes also go through an annual cycle that includes a seasonal increase in the Spring and a decrease in the Fall. That decline is expected to happen this year, as well. However, it will be less noticeable for a while due to the higher water levels, according to Keith Kompoltowicz, the Army Corps’ Chief of Watershed Hydrology in the Detroit District.

Kompoltowicz said that even with the seasonal drop in lake levels, all of the Great Lakes will start 2020 as high or higher than where they started in 2019.

“This is not a one-season high-water episode,” Kompoltowicz said. “This looks like this is going to be an extended period of higher water.”

The water levels overall are cyclical, as well. Kompoltowicz noted that back in 2007, Lake Superior ended its longest stretch of continuously record low levels. A similar period of record lows occurred in 2013 for lakes Michigan and Huron. 

“This is going to be an extended period of higher water.”

Keith Kompoltowicz, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Great Lakes had a record water level increase from January 2013 to December 2014. Per the Army Corps of Engineers, it was the largest 24-month rise on record for lakes Michigan and Huron.

Highs and lows of Great Lakes changes

The impact of changing lake levels reveal themselves in many different ways, including:

  • Beaches have eroded and water levels have risen so high they have impacted private homes, state parks, and shoreline businesses, which is negatively impacting tourism.
  • Tonnage on the Great Lakes is doing well because the ships can carry very full loads.
  • Piping Plovers had a terrible year at Ludington State Park due to a narrower strip of beach. That means easier access by predators who more easily found the nests because there was less room in which to hide them.
  • Occurrences of a phenomenon known as Meteotsunami. This is what happens when storms move at the same pace as waves across a lake. In Ludington this year, they recorded an 8-foot drop in the water level at the north breakwater lighthouse followed by a 7-foot rise. The resulting 15-foot change in water levels at that location occurred within just 30 minutes. It would not have been so drastic or as noticeable if water levels were lower. 
(Courtesy Photo | Todd and Brad Reed Photography)

We really can’t control nature

There is very little to do about lake water levels other than adapt, according to several of the experts who spoke at the forum. Lake Superior outflow is handled at the Soo Locks. This can affect how much water reaches lakes Michigan and Huron, but it’s negligible in the grand scheme of things. 

“Just because we can control the outflow does not mean we can control the water levels,” Kompoltowicz said. 

“We live in our time, nature lives in its time, and we need to adapt to nature.”

Dr. Chuck Nelson, Michigan State University

Another speaker at the forum described the Great Lakes as “dynamic.”

“They are constantly in flux. We have some influence, but we are not in charge,” said Dr. Chuck Nelson, associate professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. “The world keeps changing. We live in our time, nature lives in its time, and we need to adapt to nature.”

For more information about what’s happening with the Great Lakes water levels and what to expect in the future, visit the Army Corps of Engineers website at https://www.lre.usace.army.mil/About/Great-Lakes-High-Water/.



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