Water levels drop in Great Lakes after record-breaking highs in 2020

·3 min read
The Lake Michigan shoreline at South Shore Park in Milwaukee. Data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Detroit office show that all of the lakes have lower levels, with Lake Michigan and Lake Huron showing a drop of 14 inches from the same time last year. However, Lake Michigan is still 22 inches above its average level.
The Lake Michigan shoreline at South Shore Park in Milwaukee. Data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Detroit office show that all of the lakes have lower levels, with Lake Michigan and Lake Huron showing a drop of 14 inches from the same time last year. However, Lake Michigan is still 22 inches above its average level.

MILWAUKEE – Visitors to the Great Lakes this summer might notice a few extra inches of dry sand at their favorite beaches, thanks to a drop in water levels in the lakes.

New data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Detroit office show that all of the lakes have lower levels, with Lake Michigan and Lake Huron showing a drop of 14 inches from the same time last year, while Lake Superior is down about 6 inches. Lake Ontario experienced the largest drop of 28 inches, while Lake Erie fell 17 inches.

But those numbers don't mean that things have returned to normal, said Deanna Apps, a physical scientist with the Corps. Lake Michigan is still 22 inches above its average level, while Lake Superior is eight inches above average.

For eight months of 2020, Lake Michigan hit record high levels, eroding shorelines and damaging docks and harbors as waves reached higher and higher levels.

But even with this months' low levels, the water is likely to rise over the course of the summer.

More: The depths of Lake Michigan are getting warmer, new study reveals

Typically the Great Lakes follow a specific seasonal cycle, said Adam Bechle, a coastal engineering specialist with the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute. The lakes bottom out in the winter when there's more evaporation occurring as cold air moves in over the warmer water. Lake levels are highest during the summer, after snow melts and runs into them and rain falls.

But there wasn't as much snow this winter, and this spring has seen most of the state enter drought-like conditions.

Water levels have been climbing steadily in the Great Lakes since 2013. Before that, historic low levels going back to the 1990s caused issues, too, forcing some cities to dredge out harbors and ports so boats could gain access. Fluctuating water levels also impact beaches, and recreation is impacted, too.

"So even those who aren't directly impacted by the lakes, they still have an impact on their lives," Bechle said.

A "no boating" sign on Lake Michigan.
A "no boating" sign on Lake Michigan.

Though the small decrease is good, the waters can still be dangerous to homes, property and shorelines.

"A note of caution, if we get some stronger storm systems that move through the region, there's still potential for impacts along the shoreline like erosion or flooding," Apps said. "There's some relief that we're below the record highs from last year, but just continue to be prepared and cautious if you're along the shoreline."

The drop in water levels could be because of the world's changing climate and the resulting change in temperatures and precipitation. The amount of evaporation taking place on the lakes has changed, while precipitation has, too.

"It's kind of puzzling to folks, and maybe an indication that there's climate change influencing this," Bechle said.

Reach Laura Schulte on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Great Lakes water levels drop 2020 record-breaking highs

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