Lake Superior water levels nearing monthly record highs

Shoreline erosion and coastal damages likely. Water will also make its way down through the other Great Lakes, too.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Monthly forecasts for Great Lakes levels in February 2018 have just been released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Many people are keeping a close eye on current lake levels and future predictions, particularly for Lake Superior. The preliminary data just in for January 2018, show Lake Superior just set the second highest monthly record level, a mere 2 inches below its all-time record for the monthly average January (record set in 1986). The recently released forecast also indicates a high probability Lake Superior could be within 2 inches of its all-time record high levels for every one of the next six months. Put simply, there is a lot of water in Lake Superior and all of that water will eventually make its way through the other Great Lakes.

100 years of data

Also, 2018 marks the centennial year of accurate lake level measurements from the series of binational gaging stations. The measurements for Lake Superior are taken in Duluth, Minn.; Marquette, Mich.; Pt. Iroquois, Mich.; Thunder Bay and Michipicoten, Ontario. There are now 100 years of coordinated data ­—this geographically dispersed gaging network accounts for seiches and provides excellent information – and thus 100 January monthly averages.

Isn’t Lake Superior’s water level controlled? 

The International Lake Superior Board of Control has a Regulation Plan 2012 and is responsible for regulating the outflow and control works in the St. Mary’s River. This Board has been in place since 1914 and has compensating works which allow for some limited variation. This plan must meet multiple objectives including hydropower; municipal and industrial water supply, navigation through the locks, and maintaining a minimum flow for protection of fish habitat in the St. Mary’s River. The January 2018 control board update states:

In consideration of the continuing high water levels in the upper Great Lakes, the International Lake Superior Board of Control, under authority granted to it by the International Joint Commission (IJC), will continue to release outflows of up to 2,510 cubic metres per second (m3/s) through the winter months. This flow is 100 m3/s more than the normal winter maximum prescribed by Regulation Plan 2012. Actual outflows may vary depending on hydrologic and ice conditions, as well as maintenance activities at the hydropower plants on the St. Mary’s River, all of which have been directed to flow at their maximum available capacity.” 

Additionally, the Board noted:''

“The high levels coupled with strong winds and waves have resulted in shoreline erosion and coastal damages across the upper Great Lakes system. As lake ice begins to form this may provide a level of protection to some areas of the shoreline, but additional shoreline erosion and coastal damages may occur this winter should active weather continue.”

System snow in Lake Superior impacts the spring seasonal rise as the snow turns into liquid water. We’re still in the thick of winter so time will tell if the 2018 seasonal rises are low, average, or high. Regardless of how much changes over the next few months, notable shoreline erosion and coastal damages can be expected on Lake Superior shores. (View above image)

Tools to help visualize changes

One tool for shoreline owners and other interests is the Great Lakes Shoreview risk assessment tool (http://www.greatlakesshoreviewer.org/#/great-lakes). This tool, funded by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Office of the Great Lakes, is a web-based mapping tool that shows photos from the Lake Superior shoreline, some nearshore LIDAR data, and some risk rankings.

One other tool to note is the NOAA Lake Levels Viewer tool. Similarly, this web-based mapping tool allows users to artificially fluctuate levels up or down and see impacts on the shore. The tool is found on NOAA’s Digital Coast website at https://coast.noaa.gov/llv/. Select the lake you are interested in, zoom to your geographic area, and use the legend bar to vary the lake levels. You will see impacts on the screen.

It has been a bit of a coastal dynamics wild ride, just 5 years ago all-time record-low lake levels were noted in some of the Great Lakes; now we’re dealing with almost all time highs. Keep your seat belts buckled!

Contact Mark Breederland, Michigan State University Extension Sea Grant if you want more information on living with the ever-changing dynamic coastlines of the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes Conference, ANR Week

Event Date: 3/6/2018

The annual Great Lakes Conference held on March 6 will investigate the opportunities and challenges our Great Lakes face. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

The annual Great Lakes Conference held on March 6 will investigate the opportunities and challenges our Great Lakes face. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

The Great Lakes are one of Michigan’s most valuable resources, providing countless benefits in the present and offering tremendous opportunities for the future. Learn more about the opportunities and also the challenges facing the lakes during the annual Great Lakes Conference at Michigan State University.

The 28th Great Lakes Conference is an important part of MSU’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Week. The conference will be presented 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 6, 2018, at the MSU Kellogg Center auditorium on the East Lansing campus. The conference is sponsored by the MSU Institute of Water Research, MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; Michigan Sea Grant; and the Office of the Great Lakes.

Workshop presentations

This year the Great Lakes Conference will focus on topics including beach monitoring, autonomous vehicles used in research, ice cover, Harmful Algal Blooms (HABS), and more:

  • The Geomorphology and Evolution of Coastal Dunes along Lake Michigan – Dr. Alan F. Arbogast, Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences, Michigan State University, East Lansing.
  • Seasonal, Interannual and Decadal Variability of Great Lakes Ice Cover – Dr. Jia Wang, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Ann Arbor.
  • Beach Monitoring using “Poop Sniffing” Dogs – Dr. Laura Symonds, Environmental Canine Services LLC, East Lansing.
  • New Aquatic Invasive Watch List Species – Sarah LeSage, Water Resources Division, MDEQ, Lansing.
  • Autonomous Vehicles in the Great Lakes for Exploration, Mapping and Environmental Monitoring – Dr. Guy Meadows, Michigan Tech Great Lakes Research Center, Michigan Tech University, Houghton.
  • Forecasting Harmful Algal Blooms to Help Lake Erie Stakeholders – Devin Gill, Outreach Specialist, Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, Ann Arbor.

Registration is open

The conference is open to the public. Registration is $10 through March 1; $12 at the door (students are free). If you are a K-12 or informal educator, you may be eligible to attend the Educator Luncheon and receive a stipend in support of your participation. Educators may contact Steve Stewart via email at stew@msu.edu.

Register online and don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about our present Great Lakes and planning for the future.

Are Great Lakes water levels headed up in 2018?

November forecast suggest higher levels heading into next year.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Fall of 2017 was a very wet season in the Great Lakes region. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, basin-wide precipitation was well above normal for all of the Great Lakes during October 2017. In fact, these estimates put the monthly precipitation at 118 percent of average for Lake Superior, 161 percent of average for Lakes Michigan/Huron, 107 percent of average for Lake Erie, and 170 percent  of average for Lake Ontario. Accordingly, while the lakes generally continue seasonal decline into winter, the rate of this decline has been much more gradual.

What impact has this high precipitation had in various lakes? In late October all the Great Lakes rose slightly from the typical pattern (that is lower at the end of the month than at the beginning). Currently in mid-November, Lake Superior is hovering around its October average when it typically is a bit lower in November. Lake Michigan and Huron showed over an inch bump up around Oct. 24, 2017 – over 780 billion gallons of water across this 45,300 square mile surface area of the earth. Net basin supply estimates (the net result of precipitation falling on the lake, runoff from precipitation falling on the land which flows to the lake, and evaporation from the lake [negative net basin supply denotes evaporation exceeded runoff and precipitation]) and the outflow from the upstream lake were all above average during October.

Evaporation a factor

We know evaporation is a huge factor in lake level prediction and yet it is extremely hard to measure. The NOAA Great Lakes Research Lab and The Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research hosted a recent webinar, “Ten Years of the Great Lakes Evaporation Network: Progress Made and Opportunities for the Future” by Dr. Christopher Spence, research hydrologist from Environment and Climate Change Canada. The work done over the past decade is helpful to try to understand big and smaller years of evaporation and yet recognizes significant complexity in locating instruments on the Great Lakes. Some research-based information confirms that typically, the largest evaporation over the lakes occurs in November and December, when the lakes are still warm and the cold arctic air blasts come over the lakes.

Graphic showing lake level monthly mean averages

Graphic showing lake level monthly mean averages. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The main coordinated model for Great Lakes water levels used by the US Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t project out beyond 6 months. However, a newer product The Great Lakes Water Level Outlook, details that the high water levels of this year were accompanied by a strong seasonal rise due to wet spring conditions and high net basin supplies to the lakes. It also compares to some years when there were periods of positive net basin supply during the years 1972-1973, 1985-1986, and 1996-1997 – three scenarios representing periods of high water levels and high net basin supply throughout the year across the Great Lakes basin.

Snowpack key

Considering these scenarios, it is quite possible 2018 may be a high water year in several of the Great Lakes. One thing to watch for over the winter is the amount of system snowpack over the Lake Superior basin. Lake-effect snows are considered net-system losses (they come back long-term) but system snow pack is usually measured in March by NOAA’s National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center.  NOAA is trying to determine how much liquid water is “locked up” in the frozen snowpack, technically called snow-water equivalent. Fixed wing aircraft flying with remote sensing gamma radiation sensors at about 500 feet above the ground around the Lake Superior basin can give good estimates of snowpack. Naturally occurring gamma radiation is released from the soil under snowcover and can indicate snowdepth.

Higher lake levels impacts shoreline erosion; fall is typically the time of year for sustained storms. In fact, a Lake Superior buoy north of Marquette, Mich., measured a 28.8 foot wave at Granite Island on Oct. 24, 2017 – the highest wave ever recorded by modern buoy records (10-30 years). Significant erosion has been reported near Whitefish Point. Yet the rise and fall of the Great Lakes is still normal and key for nearshore wetland ecological health and nearshore habitat.

Here’s an overall lake level synopsis – higher levels but not all time highs. Lake Superior is 13” above its long-term average for October and 7” higher than 2016. Lake Michigan/Huron is 19” above its long term average for October and 9” above 2016. Let’s keep an eye on system snow in 2017-2018 and see what evaporative losses show – but it appears we might well be in for a higher season in 2018.

Please contact Extension educator Mark Breederland, breederl@msu.edu, for more information on living with the ever-changing dynamic coastlines of the Great Lakes.