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Climate change could trigger drastic swings in Great Lakes water levels

MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo logo MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo 8/15/2019 By Lynn Moore, mlive.com
a bridge over a body of water: High water levels overflow on to the gravel parking lots as flooding comes in from The Saginaw River near Veterans Memorial Park where the carnival and fireworks are being set up for the Fourth of July weekend on Wednesday, July 3, 2019, Bay City, MI. © Rachel Ellis | MLive.com/Rachel Ellis | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS High water levels overflow on to the gravel parking lots as flooding comes in from The Saginaw River near Veterans Memorial Park where the carnival and fireworks are being set up for the Fourth of July weekend on Wednesday, July 3, 2019, Bay City, MI.

Michigan may not get a break anytime soon from high lake levels wreaking havoc across the state, but when it does, the pendulum likely will swing the other way.

That’s according to researchers with the University of Michigan, who say climate change is behind heavy precipitation that has engorged the Great Lakes as well as water tables throughout the state.

It also will be behind periods of dry weather in coming years that will result in low water levels, said Richard B. Rood, a professor in U-M’s Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering.

a house in the water: Flooded yard in Bay County's Bangor Township. © Courtesy Glenn Rowley/mlive.com/TNS Flooded yard in Bay County's Bangor Township.

He calls the change from high to low water periods of “variability.”

“We think you’re going to see it very high and there also will be times when you will see it very low,” Rood said.

Most of the Great Lakes have experienced record high water levels this summer, with depths ranging from 14 inches to nearly 3 feet above long-term averages. But high water is everywhere, not just along Michigan’s coasts. It has lifted water tables in inland communities, causing havoc from Detroit to Muskegon and from the Upper Peninsula to South Haven.

a traffic light on a rainy day: Utica Street is flooded after a drainage culvert over flowed creating a lake above it. Heavy rains and high Lake Ontario levels swallow Oswego, NY, Thursday June 20, 2019. \rScott Schild | sschild@syracuse.com © Scott Schild | sschild@syracuse.com/Scott Schild | sschild@syracuse./mlive.com/TNS Utica Street is flooded after a drainage culvert over flowed creating a lake above it. Heavy rains and high Lake Ontario levels swallow Oswego, NY, Thursday June 20, 2019. \rScott Schild | sschild@syracuse.com

The reason for the high water levels is heavy precipitation for the last few years, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It’s been very wet across the Great Lakes basin over the last several months and years,” Kompoltowicz said.

Fall 2018 was very wet and the ground was saturated heading into last winter that saw a “very healthy snow pack,” he said. That was followed by heavy spring rainfall.

Among the communities that have been hard hit with rain this year is Muskegon, on the Lake Michigan coast, where the 25.16 inches of rain that fell between Jan. 1 and Aug. 6 was 7.45 inches higher than normal.

a wooden bench sitting next to a body of water: Rudy's break wall is holding strong and the main building is still a save distance and heavily sandbagged.  Heavy rains and high Lake Ontario levels swallow Oswego, NY, Thursday June 20, 2019. \rScott Schild | sschild@syracuse.com © Scott Schild | sschild@syracuse.com/Scott Schild | sschild@syracuse.com/mlive.com/TNS Rudy's break wall is holding strong and the main building is still a save distance and heavily sandbagged. Heavy rains and high Lake Ontario levels swallow Oswego, NY, Thursday June 20, 2019. \rScott Schild | sschild@syracuse.com

Other coastal communities with big deviations from averages are Sault Ste. Marie, perched between lakes Superior and Huron, which had nearly 9 more inches of precipitation than average; Marquette, on Lake Superior, with 6.61 inches more than average; and Alpena, on Lake Huron, with 5 more inches of precipitation than normal.

a body of water: Law water levels on Saginaw Bay at the Bay City State Recreation Area in 2003. © Dan Staudacher/BPN/mlive.com/TNS Law water levels on Saginaw Bay at the Bay City State Recreation Area in 2003.

Evaporation from the Great Lakes, which also contributes to lake levels, has been lower due to extremely cold winters such as the winter of 2018-19, Kompoltowicz said.

His predictions are that the lake levels will remain very high for at least the next six months.

The bad news for those along the coasts is that erosion could get significantly worse, Kompoltowicz said. That’s because of “legendary” fall storms, he said.

“They really churn up the lakes something fierce,” he said. “Additional significant impacts along the coastlines are possible.”

Kompoltowicz’s predictions for lake levels do not extend beyond six months. Rood and one of his co-principal investigators at the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center have general predictions for the future.

They believe the next few decades will have many more variations in lake levels than the state has seen before. Rood and Drew Gronewold, both researchers in climate science and hydrology, have noted that as recently as 2013, Great Lakes water levels were considered very low.

“Our real message is the high variability should be what we’re planning and making changes on,” Rood said.

The reason for the “high variability” in lake levels is the changing climate, he said. Global warming, he said, is “absolutely at play.”

“There is very little scientific doubt that we are seeing a strong response … to our increasing temperatures,” he said.

Warmer temperatures can help increase evaporation, leading to lower water levels, Rood said. At the same time, when the temperature is warmer, the atmosphere can hold greater amounts of evaporated water that is released as precipitation.

“You’re really supercharging the storms with the warmer temperatures,” Rood said.

States that border the Great Lakes will see an increase in the number of days exceeding 90 degrees by the end of the century, according to a report by the Environmental Law & Policy Center. At the same time, the region will experience a significant drop in the number of days below 32 degrees, and that could increase lake effect snowfall, according to the report, titled “An Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Lakes.”

But whether warm temperatures will cause more precipitation is difficult to predict, Rood said. That depends on a variety of atmospheric conditions, including the upward motion of air, he said.

“It’s not easy to be specific,” he said. “The general trend is far easier to talk about than the specific variability because there are so many sources of variability.”

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©2019 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.

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