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Experts Discuss Record-High Great Lakes Water Levels
Ohio Ag Connection - 06/07/2019

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that new record-high monthly mean water levels were set on Lake Erie, Lake Superior and Lake St. Clair in May 2019. In addition, new record-high water levels are possible on all the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair this summer, according to the Corps.

The University of Michigan experts commented on this news. In addition, an article on this topic by U-M's Drew Gronewold and Richard Rood was published in The Conversation: Climate change is driving rapid shifts between high and low water levels on the Great Lakes.

Hydrologist Drew Gronewold of the School for Environment and Sustainability discussed historical, current and future Great Lakes water levels, including the hydrologic conditions that contribute to water level variability.

"Over the past two decades, water levels on the Great Lakes have gone through an unprecedented period of persistent below-average conditions, a record-setting rate of water level rise and, now, a series of record-setting high levels," Gronewold said. "These changes are a response to unusual combinations of extreme lake evaporation, persistent increases in the magnitude and intensity of precipitation events, and intermittent outbursts of cold arctic air.

"Collectively, the hydrologic conditions across the Great Lakes basin over this period warrant careful consideration of planning decisions related to coastal and water management infrastructure, zoning ordinances and other considerations related to human health and safety."

Richard Rood, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, can discuss the links between Great Lakes water levels and climate change.

"We are undoubtedly observing the effects of a warming climate in the Great Lakes," Rood said. "We are at the beginning of what's going to be a number of decades where the climate is going to be changing very fast. During that time, we will have many unexpected weather events, and we need to learn from these events to better prepare for the future."

Richard Norton, a professor of urban and regional planning, trains local officials and residents on coastal management to help them better understand the threats posed by climate change, especially when building near Great Lakes coastlines and within floodplains. Norton and other researchers in the Resilient Michigan program help Great Lakes coastal communities make sound land use and development decisions that account for fluctuating water levels and increasing storminess.

"Beaches erode dramatically when the lakes are high, like they are now, and then slowly reappear when lake levels go back down. That's an entirely natural process, but it is being accelerated by climate change," Norton said. "The problem comes when folks want to build too close to the shore and then stop that natural dynamic.

"At some point, coastal communities may face the difficult decision of whether to protect the beach or protect the beach house. It may not be possible to do both. The thing to do is engage in good community planning to decide how best to balance the natural functioning of Great Lakes beaches and the public's interests in those beaches with respect for near-shore property owners' rights and investments."

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