Rising Waters, Rising Concerns: How We Got Here

“In the winter of January 2013, it was the lowest out of 100 years of monthly records that was ever recorded,” said Mark Breederland with Michigan Sea Grant/MSU Extension.

If you we’re around lakes Michigan/Huron in 2013, you remember it. The lakes seemed to be disappearing. Records say those 2013 numbers beat the low water level numbers of the ’60s. People were worried.

“I kept saying I know the system can rebound, but I don’t know how quick it can rebound,” Mark explained.

The rebound started that winter!

“And now it rebounded twice as fast as we saw in the ‘60s,” Mark said.

In seven short years, we’ve gone from an all-time low to a new monthly high.

“So it should be a challenging year as we all try to get through this,” Mark said.

This next year isn’t going to be easy, but how did we get to these water levels so fast?

“Record wetness, wetness and wetness. It’s the precipitation inputs that have come into the basin. It seems like we’re getting more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico area, but we have just had wetness,” Mark explained.

It didn’t happen all at once, but one rain event last summer helped prove the point.

“Michigan set their all-time 24 hour record and it was in Mason County, and it was in July of 2019 and it was an incredible amount in 24 hours like, 13 inches or something,” Mark said.

The recent weather patterns haven’t helped our current situation.

“It’s precipitation vs. evaporation leaving the basin minus what goes through the system. We had really high evaporation in the fall of 2012. We lost an extra foot of water on Lake Michigan-Huron which is an incredible amount,” Mark explained.

He says this is what we need:

“To understand the evaporation is basically you want the warmest water and the coldest air coming over it, usually with a little bit of wind. We’ve had kind of a period of calm air in the mid-30s, even though there’s little ice cover right now, there’s probably very low evaporation happening because there’s not any differential. The water is probably 34-35 degrees and the air is 34-35 degrees. What you want is you want water in the 40s and you want air in the zeros. When we’re coming in the fall the water has such heat capacity because it’s heated up all summer long that’s when the evaporation happens.”

Another thing that’s very limited right now is shore ice.

“Ice starts along Lake Michigan or Huron and kind of forms out for the first 20 or 30 feet, and when that ice forms out there, that allows that to take the brunt of the wave energy and that really buffers the shoreline,” explained Mark.

All these conditions working against us has led to records we don’t want.

“In January, we broke the record for Lake Michigan and Huron and as well as Superior. So on Superior we have a hundred January records, and now that’s the highest,” Mark said. “The previous was in 1986 of January and now it’s a third of an inch higher on Superior. But the more impressive one is the Michigan/Huron one because, again, the same 100 years of January records we have broken it by 3.12 inches and the combined surface area of Lake Michigan and Huron that is 45,000 square miles of the Earth’s globe. So three inches of water is quadrillions of gallons.”

Is there anything that can be done?

“These are great questions, is there any kind of engineering thing that we can do to deal with these high lake levels and really the answer is no. Sometimes this whole issue has been a disaster in slow motion,” Mark said.

Over the next year or so, we’ll be doing in-depth reports on the water levels issues around our great state. If you have a story please email us at news@9and10news.com.