Low Lake Levels: Don’t Fight Nature, Plan for It

The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s available surface freshwater–enough to cover the continental United States with 10 feet of water if you turned them upside down. In many places along the lakes, you can stand on one side without seeing the shoreline on the other because they are so huge. It’s difficult to remember that you’re looking at an inland lake instead of an ocean. The vast lakes seem limitless, but are they?

Dr. Phil Willink surveying streams in the Great Lakes basin

Hi everyone, this is Dr.Philip Willink, Senior Research Biologist at Shedd Aquarium, where I help lead the aquarium’s Great Lakes research to advance understanding and conservation of local waters, wildlife and habitats. With record low Great Lakes water levels in the news, I wanted to share my thoughts on what these fluctuations mean for all of us–people and animals–who rely on the Great Lakes.

In December 2012 and January 2013, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, scientifically considered one lake pinched in the middle, set record after record for low water levels. Experts, including those of us at Shedd Aquarium, expect water levels to continue dropping for the next several months. Locals living across the Great Lakes basin are concerned about future impacts on the region’s economy and biodiversity.

Fortunately, we can get some context by referring to a century of standardized data on Great Lakes water levels. We can even approximate water levels for the past 15,000 years, back to when the region was covered by glaciers. After spending 20 years studying fish in the Great Lakes, I can tell you that the water level in Lakes Michigan and Huron are always going up and down from week to week, season to season, year to year, and decade to decade. It is not a stable system and never was.

The real recent concern is the lake level has been below average for several years and shows no signs of increasing. What is driving this unprecedented pattern?

Lake Michigan’s low water levels along Chicago’s 12th Street Beach reveal formerly submerged piers.

The question is actively debated, but the primary factors influencing lake levels are rain and snowfall, evaporation, the Chicago and St. Clair rivers that flow out of the lake, dredging in the St. Clair River, and the rising and settling of the earth’s crust after the melting of the glaciers. The interaction of all these factors is complicated, but I believe there is one standout factor with the most impact over the last decade: evaporation rates.

If you aren’t in the field testing and evaluating the lakes on a regular basis as I am, it’s hard to appreciate the influence of evaporation because it is essentially invisible. However, massive amounts of water vapor are lost to the atmosphere. Each year, around 22 cubic miles of water evaporate off of Lakes Michigan and Huron. That’s enough to cover the city of Chicago with 500 feet of water, or Washington, DC, with 1,700 feet–three times the height of the Washington Monument!

Ice halos
Ice halos form rings around exposed rocks along Lake Michigan’s shoreline in Chicago.

What does evaporation have to do with lake levels? The lakes are getting warmer, which increases evaporation. While we welcome the milder, warm winters, the lakes don’t. There is less ice cover now, and ice serves an important purpose for the lakes, acting as a protective blanket that keeps water vapor from escaping into the air. Less ice means more water vapor is lost and lake levels decline. Models predict that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron could drop by two or more feet by the end of the century.

This is a lot of liquid for a region whose identity is so closely tied to water – most notably the boating and shipping community. Cities will have to dredge harbors; so boats can get in and out. Lower water means freighters can carry fewer items, necessitating additional trips between ports to move the same amount of goods. That increases operating expenses, and these increased costs are passed onto consumers. Lakefront communities, many of which depend on tourism, may no longer find themselves on the lake. Combined costs of dredging, shipping and tourism will reach hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a domino effect.

There are other local residents impacted: Great Lakes plants and animals. Shedd Aquarium’s research and conservation team is assessing potential effects of low lake levels on our native flora and fauna–and our findings will likely be mixed. Because Lake Michigan reaches 900-foot depths or more, a drop of a couple feet is unlikely to impact many fishes swimming around the lake. However, we are very concerned about coastal wetlands that thrive in just a few feet of water. The same lake level drop could easily dry up wetlands, which are critical habitats for migrating birds, spawning fishes, and sensitive plants. If the drop happens slowly enough, it is possible that species may have time to migrate to different habitats, but there are no guarantees that they will be successful.

There is always uncertainty when using models to predict the future. The only safe prediction is change. Lake levels will go up and down, as they have in the past. Rivers and streams will erode banks and meander through the countryside. Wind will create and destroy sand dunes. Nature is ever-changing. It is people that have trouble with change. We want stability and are perpetually fighting nature to keep it in its place.

The solution is to focus on incorporating future natural instability into our conservation efforts and civic planning. Restoring a wetland in such a way that it will continue to support migrating birds, spawning fishes, and sensitive plants if water levels rise a couple feet or drop a couple feet is preferable to restoring a wetland based on the assumption that current water levels will not change. Designing a harbor that will accommodate lake level fluctuations of several feet will save time and money in the future.

Instead of fighting nature, we need to figure out better ways to comfortably live alongside its changes.

The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District. www.sheddaquarium.org
  • Ima Ryma

    Lake Michigan and the great lakes
    Have ups and downs since glacier day,
    But thanks to human made mistakes,
    Lake Michigan will go away.
    Fresh water will soon become rare.
    Those with the power will seek to
    Use up the great lakes, and not care
    What holes are left when they are through.
    Water drained by technology,
    Then across the world will be sold.
    By human nature, this will be.
    Fresh water will be the new gold.

    The famous Chicago lake shore
    Will soon touch a great lake no more.

  • MI guy

    There is a lot of talk about dredging in the news.. Although dredging can raise lake levels, for boating and possibly for aquatic life. Aren’t there adverse effects that go along with it?

    Economics aside, what would be worse for the environment, dredging or not?

    It feels like a temporary solution for a very real, and much larger issue.

  • Paul Felix Schott

    Soon all will take note to the sounds and rumbling of Volcanoes and Earthquakes Around Earth that are Waking Up at a Alarming Rate. Just as they did in 1883 from Krakatoa.

    Read well and study on your own after you have read this.

    This is not a game or joke our Sun gives off a Solar Wind all day year round if you live in the State of Alaska you see it in the sky above what a sight it is going through our Earth’s Magnet Polls of the North and the South, North Poll. It’s called the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis.

    The day will come when you will be able to see it all over Earth as in the year 1859 Solar Flare, It was the largest in 500 years. Two Astronomer’s Hodgson and Carrington told the World that the Solar Flare made a Geomagnetic Storm reach Earth in hours not days. Back then it gave new meaning to Reach For The Skies from Telegraph Operators. For hours sparks flew from the key board. Even after the Batteries were disconnected. Nov 3 and 4, 2003 had a X40+ Class Solar Flare.

    Our Sun’s UV Rays will get stronger as each passing day goes by, read and i will tell you why.

    The Great big forest have be stripped from most of the Earth for Greed of Money by the Wicked. The trees are our Main Source of Oxygen on this Plant.
    The Forest Trees scrubs the Pollution out of the air and makes Oxygen from the rain and dirt that it grows in.

    The Forest Trees do more than just make Oxygen they stop Soil Erosion, just Look at the 1930 Dust Bowl. Greed by our Government taxes led farmers to clear cut all their Forest and farm all the land they were being Tax on. They had to farm it to pay for the Taxes. Why leave the Trees when food crop makes Money. This Did not Help the Depression that effected most all Worldwide. This year 2013 more than 100 million will suffer from Malnutrition lack of food and Dehydration lack of water. Many will not make it and die!

    Soon many will run out of Safe Drinking Water from pollution going into the worlds water supply.

    Wicked Leaders telling their friends as long as you can cover it up and it will not get back to me it is ok with me. Are you sure we will not go to jail for making money by Polluting the ground and water. Of course not we make the laws to fit our needs not the health and welfare of others or as they used to say (“We The People”). Its now the Wicked Leaders and rich Rule. Till our Lord GOD comes!

    Solar Energy the way to go.
    Many States Are and are Banning Fracking or Hydraulic Fracturing.

    In the United States of America alone more than 46+ Million Americans Received Food Stamps and that number is going up every day every year for more than 4 years in a row now.

    The Pollution and CO2 Carbon Dioxide go into the Tree Bark as a shield from most bugs so they do not eat the tree.

    Less Forest less Oxygen this is why the moon. That has no Oxygen is very cold on the side with out Sun Light, And hot as ever on the side with Sun Light. Way too cold and too hot to live there. You would need at least 10 times the Energy we use on Earth to even live there and life on the Moon would be very short.

    With no blank of Oxygen to lessen or reduce the Sun’s UV Rays and Solar Wind they are deadly there on our Moon. Every Mt. Climber and Aircraft Pilot knows the higher you go the thinner the Oxygen and colder it gets.

    Just spend a night on a Mt. top above 13,000 feet with no Sun Light and you will see or should i say feel the cold stinging any of your exposed skin. If you are new to Mt. Climbing stay below 10,000Ft. The Astronauts and the Cosmonauts and Fighter Pilots that i have been with for years know this very well, and the Radiation Hazards to humans at High Altitudes.

    Soon the Sun’s Solar Wind and UV rays will be way to strong for most to go out in the Sun Light for even a short time. The Geomagnetic Storm to come and the Bad Weather Storms well you have not seen nothing yet and the Sea Level is Rising the Oceans.The Sun Rays is leading to the Drying of Fresh Drinking water. Many Lakes World Wide have set records for all time Low Water Level.

    Many Millions have been affected by Floods in China and Pakistan just last year. In 2005 Over a Thousand dead in New Orleans flood, and the list going on. The sounds and rumbling of Volcanoes Around Earth are Waking Up at a Alarming rate.

    And there shall be famines, and pestilences, and Earthquakes, in divers places such as was not from the beginning of the Creation.

    The last 30 years On Earth we have broke all High Temp Records and the temp it is still going up. All the Worlds Ice Glacier are melting at an Accelerating Rate. The Glaciers and Polar Ice Caps store more water than all the Fresh Water Lakes on Earth. Many of them are drying up or water levels are going down past the lowest point every recorded.

    The Bad Weather Storms now are Babies compared to what is to come.

    They will get even bigger and worse less Oxygen the more UV Rays to the Earth and more Water molecules will evaporate and go up into the Earth’s Atmosphere. Less Oxygen the colder without sun light and hotter with it.

    The Sky full of more water vapor molecules, more snow in the winter and more Flash Floods in the Summer. All earth will see way more fires and the Deserts are growing larger.

    If every living person on Earth were to Plant A Tree Today we might have a chance.

    The Earth’s Atmosphere Blanket surrounding it protects life on Earth as Our Lord and GOD will all that seek Him.

    Then it is written when the tree is full it is harvest time. All the Earth will someday burn away.

    This is all Foretold in the Bible Read it
    and may our Lord Bless all that do so.

    The Lord’s Little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott


    2 Peter 3:10
    But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the Earth and its works will be burned up.

    GOD Bless You and Your Love ones
    Give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ every day.


    Luke 21:20-22

    Matthew 24: 30-33

    Earth is at its Limits


    The United Nations is now taking a serious look into “Earth’s Limits” Earth will very soon be at its Limits of no return for many things including all life on Earth.

    If we keep going at this rate we will not have another 20 years to go back to Rio De Janeiro to play. Most all in the Scientific Community said this 20 years ago at the last time Leaders set up this meeting in Rio De Janeiro. Of course on the Tax payers money, and of course they said about the same thing again we need to do something!

    There is enough Energy from our Sun to Power all are needs on Earth and more.

    Solar Energy

    The Fastest growing energy on Earth.

    Albert Einstein 100 years ago showed the World it could get
    Free Energy, Electric from the SUN. (THE PHOTOVOLTAIC EFFECT).

    The Freedom to get your own Power from the Wind and Sun, Solar Energy has been there for years. Are Libraries and Schools should have been the first to have gone Solar and Renewable Energy. And why are they not? Churches are all over the Planet. They are going to Solar Energy.

  • joe blow

    Mr Schott,

    You are one nutcase…

  • Paul Stewart

    We keep hearing all kinds of reports from our learned scientists and weather reporters and all the bad things that are going to happen. Worst of all is the bible bangers that cry about the coming whatever written about by some guys hiding in caves thousands of years ago. The earth is a lot older than any religion and has been looking after itself for a long time. We as humans have to do our part to help the planet by conserving and recycling where we can. But please give me a break all you criers, the earth knows what it can handle and when it gets too hot it spread a little more water around. So what. Learn to swim and or build a dike.
    We made it this far and we are going to keep going.
    Paul Stewart June 10 2013

  • Aaron Y.

    Wow, Paul Stewart you are quite ignorant, and extremely glib. Your comment reveals your lack of any appreciable intelligence. I hope you do not plan on reproducing.

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