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Below normal precipitation impacts Great Lakes

October 20, 2012
Ilsa Matthes - Staff writer ( , Daily Press

ESCANABA - Great Lakes water levels are predicted to reach record lows in a few months unless there is an increase in precipitation.

"Lake Michigan is right around 2 feet below normal," said Keith Cooley, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Negaunee.

He added Lake Superior is also down, at about 15 inches below average.

Article Photos

Jenny Lancour | Daily Press
Low water levels are noticable on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Gladstone. According to National Weather Service officials, Lake Michigan water levels are about two feet below normal.

The average Lake Michigan water level for October 2012 is around 576.5 feet above sea level. The chart datum - which is set at 577.5 feet above sea level for Lake Michigan and Lake Huron - is the measuring point used as a baseline for all measurements of the lake's surface.

According to a report released by the Detroit District of the Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month, water levels for Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are approaching record lows. By December, the water level could be more than one foot, three inches below the chart datum - breaking records dating back to 1964.

"I definitely see it being a possibility of maybe setting a record or two," said Cooley, who noted precipitation for the next three months is predicted to be less than normal.

Without adequate rains in the next few months, lake levels will continue to drop.

"They're projecting it should drop another 2 to 4 inches across all of the Great Lakes," he said.

Water levels in all five of the Great Lakes have been affected by the lack of rainfall during the summer months. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, much of the shoreline of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan is still in a moderate to severe drought or is abnormally dry.

The low lake levels could have a detrimental effect on wildlife along the shoreline, including huntable waterfowl.

"Prolonged low lake levels also affect groundwater levels, which affect wetlands many miles inland from the lake. Without groundwater, many of these wetlands are too dry for waterfowl to nest in the spring," said Chris Hoving, DNR adaptation specialist. "The number of mallards and some other species rise when lake levels are up, and they drop when lake levels are down."

When lake levels are high, vegetation is reduced along the shoreline, which creates the shifting dunes that many plants and some costal wildlife rely on. When the lake levels remain low, the habitat changes, and some species decline.

"Examples are federally-threatened Pitcher's thistle and federally-endangered piping plovers. When lake levels remain low, trees and shrubs can become established on the beach, which shade thistles and allow predators to find plovers," said Hoving.

While the abnormally low lake levels do change the habitat for many species, short-term fluctuations are no cause for alarm.

"Low lake levels are a natural part of a fluctuating system. It is actually the lack of fluctuation over the last two decades that are causing some prolonged negative impacts to wildlife," said Hoving.

Between 1988 and 2011, October lake levels for Lake Michigan have stayed consistently between 577 feet and 580 feet above sea level. The only exceptions were in the falls of 1996 and 1997, when the lake level rose above 580 feet but never reached 581.



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