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Higher water levels in the Great Lakes and a shift to "climate variability"

Feb 2, 2015

The Great Lakes sunk to some of their lowest water levels ever two years ago. People were concerned about the low levels then, but today people are concerned for the opposite reason – water levels are high.

Could the future bring more variable water levels to the Great Lakes?
Credit FLICKR USER TOM GILL / FLICKR

The Army Corps of Engineers and scientists with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say water levels in Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario are all above seasonal averages for the first time in 16 years.

Lake St. Clair is also up. It's 10 inches above its historical average. The word "unprecedented" is being kicked about.

Al Steinman, Director of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University, joined us today to talk water levels and their cause.

“The reality is we have a very dynamic hydrologic system in the Great Lakes and it does change,” he said. “Now, the amount of change in such an unprecedented period of time, such a short period of time, is highly unusual, but is consistent with what we expect from climate variability.”

Steinman said he thinks the term “climate variability” will begin to overtake the more common “climate change” soon.

One aspect of “climate variability,” he said, is that the atmosphere will hold more water as it warms. For this reason, we should expect more rain in the warmer months and more snow in the colder months.

He said this also accounts for the fact that colder ice-covered conditions lead to a less-than-normal amount of precipitation, as happened last winter in 2014.

“It’s impossible to predict these kind of events,” Steinman said. “The variability we’re experiencing in the climate is very unusual and I suspect we’re going to see more and more of this kind of dynamic situation where the changes are more frequent than we’ve had historically. And it goes to the point that we really need to adapt to these kinds of changes in the future.”

Listen above to hear our full conversation with Al Steinman.