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Lake Michigan Water Level at Record Low

Above average temperatures, drought bring water level to second record low in a row

Andrea Germanos, staff writer

"Lake Michigan-Huron’s water levels have also been below average for the past 14 years, which is the longest period of sustained below average levels since 1918 for that lake," said John Allis. (Photo: Eszter Hargittai)

Ongoing drought and above average temperatures have pushed the water level in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, considered a single body of water, to its lowest level since record keeping began 95 years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Tuesday.

The level marked not only a record low January but a record low for any month.

"Not only have water levels on Michigan-Huron broken records the past two months, but they have been very near record lows for the last several months before then," said John Allis, Chief of the Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Office at the Corps, the office that monitors Great Lakes water levels.

"Lake Michigan-Huron’s water levels have also been below average for the past 14 years, which is the longest period of sustained below average levels since 1918 for that lake."

The Corps states that it would take above average precipitation, above average snow cover and below average evaporation "over many seasons for levels to rise to near average levels."

Weather Underground co-founder and meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters, writing Wednesday on the record low level in Lake Michigan-Huron, notes that while the way climate change will continue to affect the Great Lakes is "cloudy," it is certain that it will alter the bodies of water:

The long-term future of Great Lakes water levels is cloudy, since climate change is expected to bring competing effects. A 2011 paper by scientists at NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory found that lake levels could rise or fall, depending upon the climate change scenario used. On the one hand, precipitation has increased by 12% over Michigan during the past century, and is expected to increase even more in the coming decades. This would tend to increase lake levels. However, lake water temperatures are predicted to increase and ice cover decrease, which would heighten evaporation rates. This would tend to lower lake levels. Ice cover on North America's Great Lakes--Superior, Michigan, Huron, Ontario, and Erie--has declined 71% since 1973, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Climate by researchers at NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. The loss of ice is due to warming of the lake waters, which could be due to a combination of global warming and natural cycles, the researchers said. Winter air temperatures over the lower Great Lakes increased by about 2.7°F (1.5°C) from 1973 - 2010, and by 4 - 5°F (2.3 - 2.7°C) over the northern Lakes, including Lake Superior. Lake Superior's summer surface water temperature warmed 4.5°F (2.5°C) over the period 1979 - 2006 (Austin and Colman 2007). During the same period, Lake Michigan warmed by about 3.3°F (1.7°C), Lake Huron by 4.3°F (2.4°C), and Lake Erie (which is shallow and loses and gains heat relatively quickly) showed almost no warming.

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