GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nearly two years after record highs on the Great Lakes, water levels are on the decline.
Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory shows Lake Michigan has dropped nearly 3 feet since setting its record high in the summer of 2020.
Water on the Great Lakes typically follows a pattern, with levels peaking in the late summer and bottoming out in the spring. But that pattern can be broken by consistent weather changes.
Lauren Fry, a physical scientist with NOAA, said lake levels typically rise over the spring as we accumulate more rain and then drop heading into the fall and winter as the warm surface water evaporates when it hits the cold air. She said a dry spring followed by a warm fall and a cold winter led to a larger drop.
“I like to explain it just by picturing a warm cup of coffee or hot chocolate on a cold day,” Fry told News 8. “You can see the evaporation coming off of your mug. So you’ve got that energy exchange from your coffee to the atmosphere and that’s essentially evaporation that’s happening. Whereas, in the summer, if you have cold glass of water and it’s hot, you see the condensation on your cold glass of water.”
While numbers are down, it doesn’t mean landowners along the lakeshore are out of the woods.
“I would anticipate periods of high water levels in the future,” Fry said. “There’s nothing to indicate that we are in a trajectory of downward water levels forever. I think the answer is really to be prepared for both and low water levels. It may seem like a reprieve, but I think to be ready for those changes is still important.”
DIGGING INTO THE DATA
The dropping lake level trend can be seen across the Great Lakes. All the lakes have seen their levels drop over the last two years, with Superior, Michigan-Huron and Erie on a relatively similar curve. Lake Ontario was the only one of the four that has a higher level now than it did last summer. Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are measured together because they share the same water basin, even though most people consider them separate entities.
According to NOAA, Michigan-Huron reached its highest level ever in July 2020, reaching 582.35 feet. Its monthly average was 582.18 feet. One year later, in July of 2021, Michigan-Huron sat at 580.71 feet. As of February, the lake is down to 579.13 feet.
Lake Superior came up just short of its all-time record high in 2020, falling just an inch shy of the record set in 1985. Lake Superior was at 603.05 feet in August of 2020 and had lost nearly a full foot by August 2021. It is down to 600.92 feet as of last month.
Lake Ontario set its record in 2019, measuring in at 248.98 feet on May 31. Unlike the other Great Lakes, Ontario only saw small gains in 2020, topping out nearly two feet lower. However, Ontario has the smallest drop-off between 2020 and early 2022. In February, Lake Ontario averaged 245.87 feet, higher than the 2021 peak and about 1.6 feet lower than its 2020 peak.
In May 2020, Lake Erie set its record, measuring 574.4 feet. For 2021, the lake peaked at 573.5 feet in July and is down to 572.4 feet as of February.