The Lakes Michigan and Huron have set a new all time low water level. They have just dipped below the record set nearly 50 years ago in 1965. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been keeping records since 1918. The Huron-Michigan system is 17 inches lower than this time last year. The Great Lakes have a history of dramatic changes, and winter is traditionally the lowest season for them. Spring will bring a rise in the levels as it almost always does, but if we are going to have another record-breaking hot summer like 2012 it could be even worse for the lakes. Since 1960 the water levels in the Huron-Michigan system have been fluctuating greatly, sometimes with very dramatic changes between years, but over the last 12 years they have remained low in comparison to the average (See Graph).
The causes of this downward cycle in the Huron-Michigan system is less rain, less snow, and higher evaporation rates. One of the biggest contributors to the higher evaporation rates is the higher temperatures that we have been seeing. Also the amount of ice cover can affect the level of evaporation. 2012 saw the 2nd lowest amount of ice cover on record. With less ice cover, the process where the surface water increases in temperature and the deeper water remains cooler starts off sooner. Winters with less ice cover tend to lead to the water being warmer in the summer, as in 2012 where there was only 5% ice cover, the water reached record highs.
The impacts of these lower levels on the Lakes Huron and Michigan could be very great. The shipping industry has already been hit by the low levels. In some areas, especially channels and harbors that are connected to the lakes, boats are not able to leave due to the water being too shallow. Property values can also be hit very hard if lake levels do not increase. Some homes that were once right on the shore are now in some spots hundreds of feet from the water. Tourism is also a big issue, as Michigan relies so much on tourism based around the Great Lakes and if Lake Michigan and Huron are receding, infrastructure will have to move with it. Beach spots and docks may have to be moved, channels and harbors may have to be deepened, which will cost a lot of money to both property owners connected to the water and the state.
The dipping water levels in Lake Michigan have left docks out of the water and beaches extending hundreds of feet into West Grand Traverse Bay northwest of Traverse City. (John L. Russell / Great Lakes Images) From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20121201/METRO/212010337#ixzz2HbDBkpVK
There is a push for the Federal Government to spend more on dredging the harbors and channels. The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, collected by taxing shipping does not have to be spent all at once so it can accumulate over the years. The RAMP Act will require the Federal Government to spend all of the money in the fund on projects such as deepening and dredging harbors and channels. This solves the immediate problem to the shipping industry and boaters, but does nothing whatsoever to address the problem of the loss of water in the system, or the effects that the warming of the lakes has on the ecosystems within the lakes.