Water Levels

Record High Water Levels – Why?

U.S. Army Corps Water Levels Video
Click here to proceed to a 2’49” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers video providing very clear information about why Lake Superior water levels are high.

An endless stream of articles on Superior’s record high water levels has been published. How about publishing an article on why? Why, that is, water levels are this high in the first place.

In a recent Washington Post article, meteorologist and climate scientist Kim Frauhammer nicely answers this question. A link to this excellent, in-depth article is included below. Meanwhile, here is a snapshot providing key article takeaways about “why” Superior’s water levels are so high: 

  • high levels of precipitation in the Lake Superior region over the last several months (including record precipitation for the Great Lakes Basin, April through June)
  • high rates of Superior watershed spring run-off due to high winter precipitation (the article notes an ongoing factor, the lag between precipitation, or lack thereof, and water levels).

Frauhammer touches on climate change but points out that this factor is complex, not a simple, linear factor. For example, she notes that climate is something of a double-edged sword and that:

  • the Great Lakes region has seen a 10% increase in precipitation between 1901 and 2015
  • a warm atmosphere can hold more water, leading to increased precipitation
  • conversely, warm air and water can also lead to increased evaporation, leading to an increased rate of water level decline, as observed during lower water levels in 2013.

So, what is the article’s conclusion… more record highs or rapid declines? The answer is both. According to Kim Frauhammer, expect instability, manifested through erratic year to year swings between highs and lows.

Read the full Washington Post article here.

Projected Lake Superior water levels.
What about the future? The graphic above shows projected water levels through the next 6 months into spring, 2020. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Data Graphic.

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Water Levels a Concern as Fall/Winter Storm Season Begins

Plaques and drift wood had been displaced up to the tree line at Neys Provincial Park this summer. High water levels in Lake Superior and throughout the Great Lakes have resulted in major impacts to lakeshores, which may be the new normal as climate change leads to increased precipitation in the region. Photo: Infosuperior

Great Lakes water levels have been making headlines all year, and October was no different. Wet conditions since September, 2018, have resulted in record high water levels in Lake Superior. Record levels were reached in almost all the Great Lakes this summer. Lake Ontario levels, in particular, led to deviations in the IJC Plan 2014 for the regulation of outflows by the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board. These deviations have been maintained throughout the summer. Although Lake Ontario levels have been declining, Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior are still experiencing very high levels and those water levels, combined with high winds, led to huge waves and further erosion in October.

The Headlines for October

Damage from Lake Superior was particularly bad in Duluth and Thunder Bay, catching the attention of various news outlets. MPRNews’s Paul Huttner reported that wind gusting up to 68 mph / 109 km/hr on Oct 21, 2019, lead to flooding and damage to parts of the Lakewalk in Duluth, MN; however, the newly constructed section of the Lakewalk held-up well according to Duluth News Tribune’s coverage by Andee Erickson. Despite the damages sustained, residents interviewed by Kare11 news appeared to be keeping their heads up and Star Tribune even posted images of surfers taking advantage of the waves. The same day, 45 mph / 74 km/hr winds and 35-40 mm / 1.4-1.6 in. of rain in Thunder Bay lead to flooding and erosion that resulted in the closure of a popular boardwalk and trail at Mission Marsh, as reported by the CBC.

In Chicago, damage from Lake Michigan is expected to require billions of dollars in prevention and repair efforts according to an article by Jay Koziarz of Vox Media Curbed: Chicago. Travelling towards Lake Huron through the Straits of Mackinac, further damages were apparent. MLive’s Emily Bingham reported on October 24, 2019 that a local tour guide had noticed that the foundation of the Waugoshance Lighthouse had begun to erode. The historic lighthouse’s foundation is in danger of complete collapse if mitigation isn’t attempted. Lake Huron also caused thousands of dollars in damages to sidewalks and other public spaces along Alpena’s lakefront with waves up to 7 feet tall according to Alpena News’s Steve Schulwitz.

Officials Responding to Impacts

In response to the extensive damage that has been observed across the Great Lakes this summer, the IJC’s Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee with the IJC’s  International Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River Board (ILOSLRB) and the International Lake Superior Board of Control (ILSBC) are reaching out to landowners and businesses that have been directly impacted. They are asking those affected to fill out a survey and/or provide images documenting how high water levels have impacted them: Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Shoreline Landowners and Businesses 2019 High Water Impacts Questionnaire.

In a news release on October 30, 2019, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy announced that they would expedite the permit process required for any alterations on shoreline property. Officials hope to cut permitting times from several months down to days, where there is imminent danger to structures, Michael Kransz reports for MLive. A new webpage was also created to help property owners with the permitting process and provide a centralized area for high water level information: Michigan.gov/MiWaters.

Water Levels Resource Links:

Government of Canada – Great Lakes Water Levels and Related Data

Government of Ontario – Flood Forecasting and Warning Program

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Great Lakes Information

International Joint Commission Boards, Studies and Committee

International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

International Lake Superior Board of Control

International Niagara Board of Control

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Lake Superior Water Levels Set New Record

In a Nutshell:

  • lake levels are better than 30 cm/ 1 ft. higher than this time last year
  • 8 cm/ 3.14 in. above the previous record set in 1986
  • record levels are expected to be sustained through July, August and September.

Lake Superior water levels are at a new record high. At the beginning of June, Lake Superior was 8 cm/3.14 in. above the previous record, set in 1986. Early June levels were 41 cm/16.14 in. above the long-term average between the years 1918 and 2018. New data for all of June, 2019 was not available at time of writing this article, but in May, 2019 the lake rose 13 cm/5.11 in. The lake normally rises 10 cm/3.9 in. each May.

At 1:20 P.M. on June 20th, Lake Superior’s water level stood at 183.91 m/603.40 ft., as measured at Duluth, Minnesota by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One year earlier the average water level for June, 2018 was 183.56 m/602.23 ft. This represents a year-to-year water level rise of 35 cm/13.77 in.

Precipitation was near average in the Lake Superior watershed in May but despite this, water supply to the basin was above average from high winter precipitation and runoff.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Data.

Record High Levels All Summer

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts Lake Superior water levels will continue to rise over the next three months, reaching a peak in August. Record high levels are expected for July, August and September.

How Water Levels are Measured

Several water level gauges around Lake Superior are used to determine water levels. The gauges are maintained by the National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S, and by the Canadian Hydrographic Service in Canada.

Water levels are measured in relation to elevation reference points, or benchmarks, around the Great Lakes. Based on these benchmarks, a single level surface is adopted as “chart datum” for a given lake, including Superior. In more technical terms, chart datum is referred to as “International Great Lakes Datum.” These elevation points are selected so that the water level for each lake will seldom fall below them. Only rarely will there be less depth available than what is portrayed on a nautical chart, or map.

Regulating Lake Superior Outflow

The International Lake Superior Board of Control is responsible for regulating the outflow of Lake Superior and managing the control works on the St. Marys River. The board points out that:

The ability to regulate the outflow from Lake Superior does not mean that full control of lake levels is possible. This is because the major factors affecting the water supply to the Great Lakes—over-lake precipitation, evaporation, and runoff—cannot be controlled; nor can they be accurately predicted in the long term. (ijc.org)

Data for this article was accessed from the following sources:


Telephone Numbers for Lake Superior water levels/daily fluctuations at Canadian Guages:

  • Thunder Bay – (807) 344-3141
  • Rossport – (807) 824-2250
  • Michipicoten – (705) 856-0077
  • Gros Cap – (705) 779-2052.

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