Climate Change Means Shallower Great Lakes and More Expensive Goods

Great Lakes Freighter photo by  BaronSteffan
Great Lakes Freighter photo by BaronSteffan

Great Lakes water levels are at historic lows, 26 inches below their long term averages, raising prices right at the beginning of the supply chain for iron ore, grain, and coal. For every inch the water levels fall, a freighter needs to leave another 100 tons of goods behind on the dock. That means one of the cheapest and most efficient ways to move freight in the world becomes less efficient and more expensive as the water levels drop.

It’s important to note that over 160 million tons of goods are carried on the Great Lakes each year, keeping our nation’s industrial belt supplied with raw materials. When ships carry less cargo, the cost per delivered unit increases even before the ore gets turned into steel, translating directly to higher cost for manufacturers and consumers.

Lakes Michigan and Huron have been below the historic average for 14 years now, and in January they fell to all time record low. They’ve gotten so low, 1013 foot “lakers” are having more difficulty navigating. They’re getting hung up on sand bars entering ports and are carrying up to 15 percent less capacity to make up for the lack of water. Shipping isn’t the only industry affected. The multi-million dollar charter fishing industry on the Great Lakes is also impacted as boats are unable to navigate the shallow channels.

The change in water levels is obvious to locals in the upper Great Lakes area (Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior). People living near the largest deep water port in Lake Michigan started finding fields of lumber tailings exposed by receding water, sunken remnants of the town’s lumbering era from over 120 years ago. In Grand Haven, Michigan a lost shipwreck showed above the falling water line for the first time in a century.

With little improvement in the water level outlook, the Lake Carriers Association and other groups have been left with little choice but to lobby legislators to improve dredging. Last month, Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder, approved $21 million in emergency dredging funds to keep the state’s ports navigable. As I write this, a dredging operation is taking place right off the Muskegon channel. Meanwhile, scientists like Dr. Alan Steinman, Professor of Water Resources at Grand Valley State University, are calling for greater water conservation to offset water loss.

So what’s causing the long term drop in upper Great Lakes water levels?

The problem became so persistent the International Upper Great Lakes Study was formed in 2007 to initially research causes of water loss and remedial measures. They found a major contributing factor: human induced climate change combined with natural variation. A complex interplay of reduced ice cover in the winter and drier conditions means water in the Great Lakes is evaporating at an increased rate. Since 1973, the Great Lakes have lost 71 percent of their ice cover, leaving them exposed to winter evaporation.

In the near term, increased dredging and water conservation will keep the Great Lakes navigable. The long term, however, is far less certain.

[image credit: BaronSteffan:]

Eric Justian

Eric Justian is a professional writer living near the natural sugar sand beaches and singing sand dunes of Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Michigan. When he's not wrangling his kids or tapping at his computer, he likes to putter in his garden, catch king salmon from the Big Lake, or go pan fishing with his boys.As a successful blogger his main focus has been energy, Great Lakes issues and local food.Eric is a founding member of the West Michgian Jobs Group, a non-profit organization that evolved from a Facebook page called Yest to West Michigan Wind Power which now has over 8000 followers. West Michigan Jobs Group promotes independent businesses and sustainable industries in the West Michigan area. As the Executive Director of that organization he has advocated renewable energy as both a clean energy alternative for Michigan and a new industry with which to diversify our economy and spark Michigan innovation and jobs.

13 responses

  1. I’ve heard dredging on the Detroit River for the current decline in water levels. Deeper river = more water flowing faster out of the lakes. There is a movement to refill part of the river to slow it down by dumping large rocks and debris back in the river…. seems logical, though i suspect it’s not the only cause!

    1. Yup! The original International Upper Great Lakes Study (IUGLS) focused on water diversions from Lake St. Claire between Huron and Erie. Part of the issue was that Lake St. Claire is now wider causing larger diversions from the Upper Great Lakes.

      Other causes include glacial rebound – the land is rising slowly from when it was compressed by glaciers.

      However, the larger issue is climatic changes and greater evaporation from the upper great lakes. Lower precipitation, lower runoff, and less ice cover allowing for greater evaporation during the winters.

      1. According to this U Michigan paper

        “[Scientists] have identified a general rise and fall cycle that lasts about 120-200 years. The instrumental record of the past 150 years indicates an additional rise and fall cycle of 26-38 years that occurs within the longer cycle. There has been no clear trend toward lower water levels from the late 1800s to the present. In fact, recorded lake levels since 1860 appear to be a single repetition of the 120-200-year cycle.”

        The paper also has a nice graph showing the fluctuations of the lake level, which has been at the low end of the cycle for the past several years.

        But no, I’m sure it’s global warming, stop calling it climate change, and this U Mich paper is some subversive Oil Company funded rag, oh wait NOAA helped sponsor it.

        Well the evaporation is out of control now though there for sure, no ice, above average temper, oh wait temperatures have been below average this year:.

        But it’s global, can’t just look at a region, got to look at global, over time:

        20 years of no warming. That’s just a convenient data cut. Yah.

        “Climate change” used to be “global warming” and what we were told with “certain science” and “consensus” is an out-of-control thermostat, CO2 traps heat, more heat…Venus. The models the models the models tell us…all wrong. We’re not headed for a meltdown, but now it’s what if, what if, what if?!

        You live 800 ft from Lake MI, so I recommend you have flood insurance. If they fix the Detroit river, with colder temps, more rainfall, cold PDO cycle, lake movements in 2 month 8″ above normal, and the low lake level cycle we’ve been in, you’ll be a lot closer than 800 feet soon enough.

        Best of luck.

        1. Take a gander at that chart from 2010. What you’ll see in that chart is that the modern low levels are the longest sustained low levels since the information was recorded. Longer even than the years of the dust bowl.

          That was three years ago. Three years on we’re still seeing alarmingly low water levels.

          In January Lake Michigan-Huron reached all time record lows.

          The document you link to says this on climate change: “These changes are not necessarily an indicator or a result of climate change” – they’re not saying it IS climate change. But… they’re not saying it’s not either….

          …and then the same organization that published that document published THIS document titled “Preparing for Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region”

          You are right about one thing though…variability is still a factor. Always has been and always will be. Just because climate change is affecting the Great Lakes water levels doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY thing affecting Great Lakes water levels. Lake levels will rise and fall as they always have on a cyclical basis….though on a long term downward trend.

          This isn’t an issue that can be argued away.

          Water levels are so low that lumber tailings, submerged below the lake since our city was a lumbering town 120 years ago are above water for the first time ever. Boats that sank in rivers 100 years ago are being discovered, because they are now above water.

          The falling water levels aren’t something that can be talked away with rhetoric. It’s actually happening.

  2. You mean climate variation and fluctuation not “climate blame”.

    Science can end this costly debate just my saying it WILL be a crisis not MIGHT be a real crisis. Deny that!
    If after 28 years of research the scientists still won’t say their crisis is as real as they like to say comet hits are how can it possibly be a real crisis because 28 years of “maybe” proves 100% that it “won’t be” a real crisis.
    Science; “Climate change is real and is happening and could, might, possibly, could cause a climate crisis.”
    Not one IPCC warning says it will happen or isn’t swimming in “maybes”.

      1. Good point.

        Another metaphor…I cannot say definitely which tooth will get a cavity if I don’t brush, yet I brush..

        Another…I am not 100% certain my house will catch fire, yet I insure.

        Another…Some non-smokers get lung cancer, yet the odds are greater if I smoke; so I quit

        Another…I cannot say which home run Barry Bonds hit was “caused” by steroids, but he increased the odds by taking them. And if he struck out in some game, that doesn’t mean steroids don’t matter

  3. Amazing this is published at the end of May 2013. Here’s the facts:

    – The Great Lakes are 10-16 inches lower due to St. Clair river dredging that occurred until the 1960s, so almost half of the “26 inches below their LT averages” is man-made, called dredging

    – The Great Lakes vary on 120-200 year and 25-40 year cycles – highly linked to sun and ocean/PDO cycles.

    – In April and May 2013 alone, Superior, Huron and Michigan rose ABOVE AVERAGE almost half a foot, a trend forecast to continue thru July totaling 2 feet in Huron-Michigan, a massive rebound of almost 35 trillion gallons across all three.

    Go to NOAA. Look up anywhere: great lake level rise May, and get the facts. “Little improvement in water level outlook…” This is just silly to see this at a time of historic lake level rise. Either just silly propaganda or misguided in the worst way. Please.

    1. First of all: please DO visit the NOAA website. Their Great Lakes water levels dashboard can be found here:

      And what you will see is that the Upper Great Lakes continue to be well below the long term average. And have been below the long term average for the past 12 years – the longest period below the long term average ever recorded. One good season, not even TWO good seasons will be enough to bring the lake levels back up to historical averages.

      As I’ve mentioned: Lake St. Claire, as well as glacial rebound (land rising from when it was compressed by the glaciers), are two additional reasons for reduced water levels — the International Upper Great Lakes Study talks about those. However water evaporation is the larger factor here.

      Not only is water level falling on average, there’s also record low levels of lake ice, exposing more of the water to evaporation during the winter months.

      1. Eric, TWO seasons later and Superior is +8, MI-HU are +5 inches above normal. Record ice last year rewrote the books. Superior may start rewriting the record levels next season even with well above average releases. MI-HU’s level in October is equal to the seasonal max average in July. All the Lakes’ temperatures this year have been below normal.

        I’m sure this is the “natural variability” in spite of man made climate change. I’m sure cold is really caused by warming. All the excuses. The reality: you were colossally wrong.

    2. I’d also like to point out that I live 800 feet from Lake Michigan. I visit it and fish in one of the harbors at least once a week. And I’ll believe my lying eyes over any futile attempts to suggest the water levels aren’t alarmingly low and have been for most of a generation, now.

  4. There are other reasons as well. They reversed the flow of the Chicago river that drained into Lake Michigan now it drains into the Mississippi . There are numerous bottled water plants as well Lake Erie feeds New Yourk pluss the additional munisaple water supply’s putting additional stress on both of the Great Lakes. I think the human impact out ways global warming. That is just the easy way out. Like flora carbons are the cause for the depletion of the ozone layer.

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