Essay: Lake Michigan’s Rise & Fall

Green Talk, January 2016

In 2015–16, Elizabeth G Fagan wrote the monthly column “Green Talk” for the Ozaukee County News Graphic on behalf of Mequon Nature Preserve. Fagan was a professional writer for many years, including a decade during which she operated her own business. Art, content, and photography © 2015, 2016, Elizabeth G Fagan, Lake Michigan’s Left Coast, lakemichigansleftcoast.com.

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Lake Michigan's rise in northern Ozaukee County, WI ( © 2016 Elizabeth G Fagan)
Lake Michigan’s rise in northern Ozaukee County, WI ( © 2016 Elizabeth G Fagan)

In 2014, Lake Michigan began to rise. By early September of that year, the water level surpassed its historical average for the month. Ozaukee County residents began to see the Lake swallow beaches from Mequon to Belgium. By July 2015, the Lake was up three feet from its all-time low only a year and a half before. The Lake retreated intermittently to reveal sandy beach and fresh deposits of lake stones. But high waves continued to take down stands of grasses, shrubs, and residents’ barriers between backyard and beach.

Lake Michigan's rise in northern Ozaukee County, WI ( © 2016 Elizabeth G Fagan)
Lake Michigan’s rise in northern Ozaukee County, WI ( © 2016 Elizabeth G Fagan)

Each of the Great Lakes has an annual rise and fall cycle driven by precipitation, snow melt, and evaporation. Evaporation rates vary with air and water temperatures. Beginning in the late 1990s, a period of low precipitation and warmer temperatures causing greater evaporation created record-low water levels in January 2013.

January 2016 Green Talk by Elizabeth Fagan
January 2016 Green Talk by Elizabeth Fagan

Then came the polar vortex of January 2014 and continued low temperatures. Between January 5 and 7, record-shattering cold spread across the United States. By early March, more than 90 percent of the Great Lakes had frozen over. Lake Michigan set a new record for ice cover on March 8, when it hit 94 percent. The cold caused an enormous drop in the evaporation rate, and another cold winter in 2014–15 perpetuated the trend. With lower evaporation, our Great Lake became our even-closer neighbor in 2015.

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