The Heat Is Online

Warm Winter Leaves Great Lakes at Lowest Level in 35 Years

Great Lakes at record low

Amy Marquis,, April 8, 2000

The Great Lakes haven’t seen water levels this low since 1965. That translates to stunted growth for the Great Lakes shipping industry.

Scientists say that, unless there is an extremely wet spring and summer, levels could continue to drop, setting records as they go.

"The lakes have not been this low since March 1965, and I’m concerned that recent growth in the Great Lakes shipping industry might evaporate with water levels," said William M. Daley, U.S. Secretary of Commerce. "The near record low lake levels hurt shipping, but recreational boaters and marina operators suffer, too."

Lower levels mean lighter loads for freighters carrying iron ore, coals, and limestone between Great Lakes ports, including Duluth, Minnesota, Chicago, Illinois, and Toledo, Ohio.

"We are losing 8,000 to 9,000 tons per trip because of the lower levels," said Glen Nekvasil, Communications Director for the Lakes Carriers’ Association. "A major utility in the Great Lakes area burns about 22,000 tons of coal a day, so you can see what the loss of nearly half of that amount can mean."

Lakes Michigan and Huron have seen record-setting drops of almost three feet in two years, the largest drop in 140 years of record. However, Frank Quinn, Senior Hydrologist at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, says the three-year run has ended a 30-year stint of above average lake levels.

Experts say the long-term cause for the phenomenon is a warming trend, which means less ice and more evaporation. Coupled with last winter’s warmer temperatures and low snowfall amounts, the trend in recent hotter temperatures and lower rainfall tallies is a recipe for low water levels. Plus, scientists say there is yet another contributing cause.

"Many of the streams also have been at record low flows for this time of year, so not as much water is going into the lakes from those sources," said Quinn.

The silver lining in this cloud? Bigger beaches.