Essay: Lake Michigan’s Rise & Fall

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’s experience as a professional writer spans more than 30 years. She frequently took the photos accompanying her “Green Talk” columns.
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Lake Michigan, January, 2019, by Elizabeth G Fagan,, Lake Michigans Left Coast
Lake Michigan, January, 2019, by Elizabeth G Fagan,, Lake Michigan’s Left Coast

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.

January 2016 Green Talk by Elizabeth Fagan
January 2016 Green Talk

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.

Update to original essay

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.

Elizabeth Fagan, Lake Michigans Left Coast
Elizabeth Fagan, Lake Michigan’s Left Coast

Elizabeth G Fagan is a writer and artist who resides on Lake Michigan’s shoreline in southeastern Wisconsin—a place she calls Lake Michigan’s Left Coast.

Fagan attended The Hammonasset School, a private arts high school in Connecticut, where she began writing and taking photographs. She earned a BA in English at Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa) and the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). She has an MA in Linguistics with a specialization in teaching English as a second language (ESL) from UIC. Fagan later gained an associate degree in Web Development from DePaul University in Chicago.

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Art, content, photography,, Lake Michigan’s Left Coast © 2015–2019 Elizabeth G Fagan
Unauthorized use is prohibited
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