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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Patrick M. O'Connell

Lake Michigan water levels break monthly record high for the first time in more than 30 years

CHICAGO _ Pounding waves, eroding bluffs, submerged trails and disappearing beaches have become a common sight along the Lake Michigan shoreline during the past months. While lake levels usually reach their lowest point in winter, this year the lake has remained stubbornly high.

Persistent Midwestern rains _ combined with warmer temperatures that led to earlier and faster snow pack melt _ pushed the Lake Michigan water level to a record high for the month of January. This is the first time a new monthly high has been recorded in more than 30 years.

Lake Michigan water levels averaged about 4 inches above the previous January high set in 1987. The lake, measured together with Lake Huron because the two are connected at the Straits of Mackinac, is still 9 inches below the all-time high, set in October 1986.

The new January record may be just the beginning, scientists say, and is likely a precursor to higher lake levels during the wet months of spring.

"This is definitely a big deal," said John Allis, chief of the Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Office for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, based in Detroit. "This is going to continue to be a big problem for people."

Just weeks after a winter storm caused major shoreline flooding, the Chicago Park District closed part of the Lakefront Trail on Tuesday as big waves battered the coast again.

In Wisconsin, officials examined shoreline damage from Milwaukee to Kenosha to see whether the state will seek a federal disaster declaration, and some Michigan lawmakers are pushing for a state of emergency declaration for shoreline communities.

In addition to inundating portions of the Lakefront Trail, lakefront parks and streets in Chicago, the high water level has led to the erosion of picturesque sandy bluffs; damaged lakeside homes, docks and marinas; and left beaches underwater, especially along Michigan's western coast, Allis said. A South Side portion of the Lakefront Trail was shut down after a storm on Veterans Day and isn't expected to reopen until spring.

"It's really been the rain component that has been the real driver of this," Allis said. "It's just been wet, and it's been a sustained wet. Especially in Michigan, many areas kept experiencing wet month after wet month. It's really as simple as that."

Scientists say climate change is ushering in a new reality throughout the world. Last year was the second-wettest year on record in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Only in 1973 did the country receive more precipitation over the course of a year. Chicago received 49.54 inches of precipitation in 2019, which ranks as the third wettest year on record and more than 12 inches greater than normal, according to the National Weather Service. Since Illinois meteorologists began collecting precipitation records in 1871, four of the Top 5 wettest years in Chicago have occurred in the last decade.

And 2019 also was the second warmest year ever since records began to be collected in 1880. The warmest was 2016, aided by El Nino events. Rising temperatures and increased precipitation are linked, scientists said. For every 1 degree of warming, the atmosphere can hold 4% more water vapor that can turn into precipitation.

January in much of the Great Lakes region was warmer and wetter than normal, conditions that helped push the lake levels higher. Warmer-than-average temperatures in December also led to greater runoff due to snow pack melting, especially on lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, leading to more water supply, according to the Army Corps. The warm air also caused less evaporation off the lakes' surface.

The water levels of each of the Great Lakes peaked during the summer or fall in 2019 and have been in decline since then, but they still remain extremely high, and significant erosion continues in many locations.

To determine the lakes' water levels, a network of gauges are set up along the shorelines. The Army Corps, which maintains the official record, takes the readings from the Chicago area and all along the Lake Michigan and Huron coastlines, and averages the daily levels to calculate the monthly figure.

Andrew Gronewold, associate professor at the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, said warmer winter temperatures, even brief bursts of warm weather during a usually cold time for the Great Lakes region, also contribute to high lake levels. When temperatures rise, snow melts earlier, and the runoff in the Great Lakes basin flows into the region's rivers and streams and eventually into the lakes.

That phenomenon has contributed to the flooding along the Mississippi River and other area rivers and streams in Illinois, as well as the high lake levels on Lake Michigan. The Chicago area straddles the boundary between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. A sliver of northeastern Illinois feeds into Lake Michigan, while most of the rest of the state's water heads south and west toward the Mississippi. Most of the lower peninsula of Michigan drains into Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, as do portions of Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, northern Indiana and Ontario, Canada.

Up north, Lake Superior also set a record for high water level for January, Allis said.

"There's an awful lot of water and flooding all across the Great Lakes basin," Gronewold said.

Gronewold said there is a shift occurring for when water comes through the system. With more precipitation, combined with earlier snow melts, water is making its way into the lake earlier than the typical late February through April period. And there does not appear to be an end to this pattern.

"I think we're going to continue to see this for the next few months, and maybe the next few years," Gronewold said.

The lakes' high level comes seven years after Lake Michigan set a record low in January 2013.

"That's extraordinary," Gronewold said. "Fast forward, and here we are at the other extreme."

Allis said the Army Corps' forecast for the coming months predicts more monthly records may fall.

As winter wanes and ushers in a warmer and wetter spring, the lakes will likely continue to rise.

"Looking at the forecasts, there's a significant probability we'll be above level highs for the next few months," Gronewold said, "all the way into June."

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