Lake Michigan’s Rise & Fall

Peace © Elizabeth G Fagan, 5"x7" art and holiday card


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.

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 water levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron rise and fall in unison. Beginning in the late 1990s, low precipitation and warm temperatures caused lower-than-average water levels. Residents of Lake Michigan’s shoreline in southeastern Wisconsin enjoyed wide white-sand beaches year-round. Record-low water levels were recorded in January 2013.

In 2014, Lake Michigan began to rise. By early September, the water level surpassed its historical average for the month. By July 2015, the Lake was up three feet from its all-time low only a year and a half before.

Ozaukee County (WI) residents began to see the Lake swallow the shoreline from Mequon to Belgium. The white sandy beach was gone. The Lake retreated intermittently to reveal fresh deposits of lake stones. High waves continued to take down stands of grasses, shrubs, and residents’ barriers between backyard and beach.

At the end of 2019, all Great Lakes reported even higher water levels. In December, Lake Michigan was 47 inches higher than its historic average—16 inches higher than it was only 12 months earlier. Alarmed residents of Lake Michigan’s Left Coast had never seen such large portions of their properties simply disappear into the ever-rising lake. Massive downed trees created snarls of driftwood on top of infinite supplies of lake stones.

“The shoreline is a driftwood bonanza. Underneath, the rocky beach looks solid but is very unstable. At every step it might give way and cause you to tumble. I know that from first-hand experience.” says Elizabeth G Fagan. “My dog won’t even go near it.”

Beginning in January 2022, a small bit of beach appeared, but millions of rocks made navigating the shoreline a risky business. By January 2023 bits of sandy beach appeared and disappeared regularly. “Lake Michigan is different every day,” says Fagan.

Elizabeth G Fagan, artist, Wisconsin
Elizabeth G Fagan, artist, Wisconsin

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