By Jacob Wheeler
When the US Army Corps of Engineers measured Lake Michigan and Lake Huron water levels at the end of December, they discovered that the depth had receded to 576.15 feet above sea level — breaking the record for the previous all-time-low of 576.2 feet set in 1964. That’s not a record to celebrate.
Numbers are complex and difficult to comprehend. But beaches along Sleeping Bear Bay offered more clarity, and sobering clarity at that. The shoreline has receded substantially from previous years, leaving behind a hard, rocky surface in places, and prompting widespread alarm.
Rob Karner, a biology teacher at the Leelanau School who uses the school’s beach to launch his Hobie Cat into Lake Michigan, hasn’t seen anything like this in the 36 years since he moved to Glen Arbor. A year-round fitness buff, Karner is pragmatic and admits that the receded shoreline and hard surface makes it easier for joggers — but it will also force him to drag his boat further before he reaches the water. It’s clear that the potential long-term costs outweigh any immediate benefits.
As a watershed biologist for the Glen Lake Association and a landowner on the Crystal River, Karner is triply concerned about low water levels. When he drives along County Road 675, between his house and Glen Arbor, he sees vegetation where the river used to flow. As for the Glen Lakes, he encourages boat owners to invest in flat-bottom crafts, or boats with engines that can be tilted back, to decrease their draw and make them more versatile in shallow waters.
But what happened to our precious water? Is it being secretly pumped to the dry Southwest to feed golf courses and lawns in Phoenix? Is it Climate Change? Or is this all an aberration?
“Evaporation is the number one issue,” explains Karner. “When you don’t have ice cover during the winter months, coupled with warmer temperatures and wind — that’s the main culprit. We’ve gone too many winters in a row where Big Glen Lake doesn’t freeze over, exposing water to year-round evaporation.”
The day we spoke in mid-January, the wind was howling at 30 knots, and despite a healthy snowfall left by Winter Storm Draco just before Christmas, temperatures hadn’t remained cold enough for Big Glen to freeze over. Karner reminded me that, last winter, Big Glen finally froze over late in the season, but it didn’t stay long.
“It froze for a handful of weeks, not a handful of months,” he said. “If that trend continues, our lake levels could be set up for a lot of water loss, and lower levels could be the norm rather than an anomaly.”
Fellow Leelanau School science teacher Joe Blondia doesn’t shy away from the bigger, and alarming, picture when discussing low water levels in the classroom.
“What I’m telling kids is that it’s 113 degrees in Australia today; we just had record average temperature set in the United States; the polar ice caps are disappearing, but we’ve still got Senators calling this voodoo science,” says Blondia. “We can all agree that we put a man on the moon and built the internal combustion engine, but we can’t all look at a thermometer and see that the red line is higher than it was five years ago. This is global warming. Whether the climate is changing is no longer up for debate.”
Blondia recalls that, in the late 1990s, the school took students down to the beach to move the lifeguard stand further offshore so that it wouldn’t get submerged. Now the wooden stand sits 50 yards from the water’s edge.
What would Climate Change mean, long-term, for northern Michigan? According to longtime television meteorologist Dave Barrons (as reported in the Glen Arbor Sun’s July 2012 story “Will climate change kill the Michigan cherry?”): Overnight low temperatures would increase, winters would become sloppier and ski resorts would have to make more snow. Ice on the lakes would decrease, as evidenced by the Grand Traverse bays freezing only once or twice a decade, whereas they once froze in eight out of 10 winters. Warmer temperatures would cause more wintertime water evaporation, which would shrink water levels and expose more beaches. Rainfall patterns would change, bringing more downpours in the spring and fall, marked by significant dry spells in between. And rising temperatures would allow more insects and pests to survive through mild winters.
What’s the solution?
“Pray for rain, pray for snow,” answered Karner. “That would make everything go away. If we get healthy wintertime precipitation, it solves the problem.”