About a decade ago, water levels in Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes frequently made news, and the headlines noted a disturbing trend in the amount of water:
“Lake Superior Water Level Drops to All-Time August Low”
– Duluth News Tribune, August 23, 2007.
“Great Lakes Water Levels Reaching Record Lows”
– MPR News, April 23, 2013.
Back then, freighters were leaving port not loaded to capacity and recreational boaters found their docks high and dry. Back then, everyone wondered where the water went.
Today, less than 10 years later, those same recreational docks are under water and Lake Superior storm-driven waves are clawing away the shores and causing millions of dollars in damages. Shoreside property owners are desperate for ideas and searching for aid. Lakeside cities are planning for more of the same.
From back then, when Lake Superior was almost 2 feet below its long-term average, the water level has risen more than 5 feet. The Lake logged five months in 2019 wahen it tied or topped its monthly record high levels.
Water level swings from highs to lows have always been normal for Lake Superior.
“We see these decadal – 10-, 12-, 15-year cycles in Great Lakes water levels – and they vary 6 feet from lows to high,” says Guy Meadows, director of the Marine Engineering Laboratory at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.
“As you probably recall,” he adds, “starting in 1999 there was a 14-year period of low lake levels and then in 2013, water levels began to rise very rapidly, and what we think we’re seeing is increased storm intensities and increased frequency of storms.”
While highs and lows are not new, that frequency and intensity seem to be, Meadows notes, and reflects the effect of climate changes.
But while a decade ago we may have been wondering where the water went, in this recent round of rising water, we know where it’s coming from.
As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noted in a January press release, “Several natural factors contribute to the record lake levels. Persistent wet conditions across the Great Lakes basin continue to drive high water levels. Many cities across the basin set records in 2019 for the wettest period on record. The warmer than average temperatures in December led to greater runoff due to snow pack melting, especially on lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, leading to more water supply. The warm air also caused less evaporation off the lakes’ surface, which leads to more water in the system.”
In a nutshell, we are getting more precipitation, in shorter bursts, overwhelming the natural and human-created systems that usually slow and filter the water flow.
For example, in the past three years, severe flooding has wreaked havoc – and wrecked roadways – in northern Wisconsin. The floods are coming from powerful storms packing gales of wind and torrents of rain.
A mid-July 2016 storms, for example, dumped about 14 inches on Ashland County and about 10 inches in Iron County within 24 hours.
Unable to contain that much water, the Bad River gushed water over its banks, damaging Highway 2, other roads and infrastructure and pushed muddy debris into Lake Superior. The flash floods also caused three deaths in the area and destroyed Saxon Harbor on the shore.
The heavy rainfall led to two record river levels, according to NOAA statistics. The White River near Ashland rose to 8.54 feet, topping the previous record of 7.9 feet set in 1953, and the Bad River near Odanah rose to 27.28 feet, topping its 1946 record of 22.20 feet.
The amount of water wasn’t the only issue; there was also the speed. At the Bad River Reservation town of Odanah, a U.S. Geological Survey streamgage logged a peak flow of 40,000-cubic-feet per second on the Bad River, its highest recorded flow since the streamgage was built in 1948. Just 15 hours earlier, that flow was 300 cubic feet per second.
As weather-related strains continue to unfold, researchers around the Great Lakes are gathering data from historic and current occurrences to help better understand and cope with coming challenges.
Guy Meadows and his team at Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center have been involved in a project to document nearshore hydrodynamics that can help predict consequences of future lake water levels and prepare property owners and communities for shoreline changes on the Great Lakes.
That project, funded mainly through Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy, includes creating an online aid, Meadows says, “a shoreline viewer to the individual property level, to show them how the property has changed over the last 80 years.”
The goal of the project is to help coastal communities prepare for high water, Meadows says. “It’s providing education to property owners and communities how to be more resilient. … It predicts 30 years into the future.”
Using these tools, he notes, the team can “suggest how zoning laws could change to make their shorelines resistant.”
Work on Lake Michigan is well in place and this year, they begin documenting the Lake Superior shoreline.
What that historic documentation shows along Lake Michigan, he says, is “row after row after row of failed shoreline structures.”
Lake Superior also has historically taken its toll on structures placed for human benefit. “Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum,” the nickname for that bunker-like, tilted structure off shore in Duluth’s Canal Park, is an older example. The concrete foundation, built in 1919 by Harvey Whitney, was intended for a holding dock so Whitney Brothers of Superior could quickly unload sand and gravel. By 1922, the Lake has beaten that idea to death, and the “mausoleum” was abandoned.
More recently, three years of massive storms have pounded Duluth’s shoreline in sight of Uncle Harvey’s folly. In August, the city of Duluth reopened the full Lakewalk, damaged by three major storms in the last years. The bill for repair and additional work to make the walkway more resilient to the Lake’s moods is estimated at more than $9 million. Currently, the city is seeking $13.5 million in state funding to replace sea walls and for more Lakewalk improvements.
Private property owners also are deluged.
Two Harbors, Minnesota, native Ken LaBounty, who built his Barker’s Island home in Superior in 2000, has become intimately attuned to the rising waters of the Lake where he grew up.
LaBounty and his wife bought the shoreside home because its location is so boater-friendly, right on the water, and the neighborhood close-knit. “My wife is just totally in love with the island; she’s totally in love with the water,” LaBounty says. But their home now seems in danger of being swallowed by the Lake they love.
“There has been a huge amount of eroding,” he says. “That really nails down the problem – the southwestern point of the island is now about 14 feet shorter than it was when I bought the lot in 2000. … The birch trees are completely gone … and the changing waterfront beaches, which used to be quite sizeable going out into 12 to 14 feet. Now there is no beach; it’s just Lake.”
He notes that a neighbor, whose home was one of those built during the 1980s and ‘90s when they were allowed closer to the shore, “has waves hitting his living room window (during storms).”
While the situation on Barker’s Island – definitely a close-to-the-water community – doesn’t reflect all that of all Big Lake property owners, the residents’ frustrations do echo others. LaBounty has been vocal about how property owners, while facing flood waters, seem to be left high and dry by national, state and local governments in their battle to save their properties. All have seemed non-responsive to his concerns about the erosion, he feels, even though the city recently invested millions into enhancing the island for visitors and water-quality protection.
“I’m asking for some support here. … A big draw for the city is the island itself,” he says, adding that the city has “invested a huge amount of dollars here in the public beaches. and the whole construction could be under water.”
In his work trying to help shoreside communities prepare better for fluctuating water levels, Meadows understands the frustration of local property owners, but points out the dilemma of trying to save individual structures against every-changing waters.
Adding breakwaters may only be altering where the impact hits hardest, he says. “In terms of hardening the shoreline, that might get you through a little episode of high water, but in the end, it causes more erosion. Then it’s no longer a beach, it’s a construction zone. …Planners have to make the hard decision: Do you save the beach, or do you save the beach house?”
Although little solace to Lake Superior shore residents, Meadows points out that the Big Lake, because it is less populated, has fewer lakeside structures to protect than say, Lake Michigan, with “more structures, more people, more towns, more densely populated and more sandy coastline.”
Among all the uncertainty, one thing seems for certain in 2020. High water levels – perhaps even new high level records – will continue.
In January, the corps sent out a press release announcing that all of the Great Lakes currently have water levels higher than at the start of 2019, “a year where many record high water levels were set across the lakes.
“The water levels of each lake peaked during this past summer or fall and since then have been in a seasonal decline, however, significant erosion continues in many locations as water levels remain extremely high,” the corps notes. “Strong storm systems and resulting large waves have led to substantial erosion along much of the Great Lakes coastline.”
The release went on to warn that according to John Allis, chief of the Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Office, Detroit District, “This sets the stage for coastal impacts and damages in 2020 similar to, or worse than, what was experienced last year.”
“Our message has been, even going back in April, this looks to be a long duration high-water event – whether we reach records not,” says Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology at the Detroit District.
The high precipitation “experienced not only in the Lake Superior basin, but across the Great Lakes has kept the soil moisture very high,” Kompoltowicz says. “We have saturated soils heading into the winter. … When we get the melt in the spring, that water has no where to go, so it runs off into the lakes so it causes issues of flooding.”
Flooding, especially those flash floods, can create severe problems inland, but for the Lake Superior shore, the issue becomes what storms and winds do with the added water.
“We’re certainly involved in messaging: the high lake levels themselves aren’t the cause of the erosion,” Kompoltowicz says, “the cause is the wave action.”
As the waters rise, though, the waves get bigger and more powerful. In October 2017, wave-measuring buoys north of Marquette recorded waves of 28.8 feet, the highest recorded on Lake Superior. The Lake, though, is thought to be able to toss up waves of more than 30 feet during early winter and early spring storms, when buoys are off the water.
It’s all about the “wave energy,” Meadows agrees. “The wave energy – the amount of energy the waves deliver to the shoreline – is greater during high water years. People should remember that it’s a double hit on the shore line – works right at the base of the bluff.”
With much of the Great Lakes basin – including around Lake Superior – experience higher than usual amounts of precipitation during the last year or so, Meadows says, we should be on high alert about the water working its way from inland to the inland seas.
“It takes about 18 months to work its way into the Great Lakes. The moisture in the woods takes time to seep through the ground … and follow 18 months later with higher water levels,” Meadows says.
“We have not yet hit the peak of water.”