TRAVERSE CITY — Rising waters in Lake Michigan hit record highs and had homeowners scrambling to save lake homes, road beds collapsing and bridges washing out amid numerous other impacts a little more than a year ago.
Then they started to plummet, paused their fall for a modest seasonal rise in summer and started falling again come autumn, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data shows.
January’s water levels — still coming down from mid-2020’s record high — look like they’ll be the highest of 2021, said Keith Kompoltowicz, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Great Lakes watershed hydrology chief.
“And that has only happened, I think, three times in the history we have, which goes back to 1918,” he said.
He pointed to a dry winter, spring and early summer that did little to push the typical seasonal rise in water levels.
Lake Michigan’s decline each fall and winter is driven by evaporation, and unseasonably warm water temperatures going into the winter is the right condition for lots of it, Kompoltowicz said. There are a lot of unknowns at this point. But so far, he and others suspect a return of the record high levels from 2020 isn’t in store, at least not in 2022.
The National Weather Service figures there’s a good chance the Great Lakes region is in for a warmer, wetter winter thanks to La Niña, where colder-than-normal waters in the central Pacific Ocean push the polar jet stream to the north.
That doesn’t give much certainty to predictions for what Great Lakes levels will do over the next six months, Kompoltowicz said. But a lot does depend on what kind of winter is in store for the Great Lakes basin.
A cold winter that blankets the region with plenty of snow followed by a wet spring with lots of rain could push Lake Michigan waters higher than they were in 2021, Kompoltowicz said.
“Obviously, if the opposite happens we could continue to see levels lower than they have been,” he said.
It’ll take a lot of cold air to get Lake Michigan cold enough to ice over, said Hans Van Sumeren, the director of Northwestern Michigan College’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute. He cited data from the institute’s science buoys in East and West Grand Traverse Bay before they were pulled a week ago showing water temperatures in the mid-50s and about five degrees higher than average. And the warm water wasn’t just at the surface, but all throughout the water column.
All that cold air would cause a lot more evaporation, pushing water levels even lower, Van Sumeren said. Even if that moisture fell on the Great Lakes basin as snow or rain, some moisture would move out of the area.
Predicting highs and lows in the Great Lakes is made difficult by their increasingly drastic swings. He recalled January 2013 when lakes Michigan and Huron set a new record for low water. Six years, six months and around 65 inches later, those same lakes were just shy of their highest recorded levels in 2019 and beat them in 2020.
Now, they’re nearly 30 inches lower and falling, he added.
“Predictions and models that used to be a little more predictable are becoming less predictable, and it’s the variance and rate of change that’s occurring at a much faster pace,” he said. “So it’s hard to say what next year’s levels will be, other than if we are trending the way we have been, we could expect them to continue to decline.”
Those wild swings are undoubtedly wilder because of climate change, Van Sumeren said, and that means people will have to learn to adapt to unprecedented highs and lows.
Editor's note: this article has been updated to correct a reporter's error on the year when Lake Michigan levels reached record highs. It was 2020. Nov. 24, 2021