The water levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron rise and fall in unison. Annually, water levels follow a predictable pattern. In the deep-winter months of January and February, water is at its lowest. Winter thaws and warm-season rains bring the highest levels in July and August. The record increases of 2013 and 2014 slowed until 2017, when water levels rose sharply. In 2018, record rainfall in southeastern Wisconsin caused floods and even higher levels in Lake Michigan.
In January, 2019, I attempted to visit noaa.gov for facts about Great Lakes water levels. I was automatically redirected to governmentshutdown.noaa.gov, a page that stated, “The website you are trying to access is not available at this time due to a lapse in appropriation.” At the bottom, it provided a link to information about unemployment compensation for Federal employees. No photo speaks louder than those words.
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.
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.
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.
Elizabeth G Fagan is a writer and artist who resides in southeastern Wisconsin—a place she calls Lake Michigan’s Left Coast. She’s endured the curse of being a writer since attending a private arts high school in Connecticut, where the bad habit was encouraged. She also became a photographer at that high school. She spent all the time she could in the school’s darkroom, creating black and white images from film. Alas, a second bad habit acquired.
Fagan is passionate about the natural world and its creatures. She highly recommends the work of Chicago-based nature photographer Mark Swanson.
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