August 8, 2013-by Philip Kuptz in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Patric Kuptz means it when he says he grew up on the Great Lakes.
“I’ve spent most of my life within 50 feet of here,” the 37-year-old said on a sunny May morning, working on a boat near his third-generation family home — a brown brick duplex at the edge of Milwaukee’s South Shore Yacht Club.
This is where, as a boy, he Huck-Finned away his summers — chasing perch from the docks, splashing in the frigid surf and making all manner of mischief around the yacht club, news of which often made it home before he did.
Today, Kuptz hardly recognizes the lakeshore as the one he grew up on, pointing to a beach that didn’t exist when he was a kid in the mid-1980s, when the water was about five feet higher and yacht club members needed steps to ascend from the docks to their boats. When that record-high water dropped a couple of years later and those stairs were being thrown away, the young Kuptz couldn’t believe it.
He knew even back then that lake levels were a fickle thing, so he hatched a plan to stash the stairs in his garage — and sell them back to their owners when the lake bounced back.
Kuptz is glad he never acted on it because the only record water level that has returned in the last quarter century is the record low set this winter. Today it is Kuptz who is convinced the lake isn’t coming back, at least not in his lifetime, and now he is the one making plans accordingly.
He sold his sailboat.
“I actually bought a power boat because I’m worried about the draft,” Kuptz said of the keel-grabbing water levels. “It’s nuts. I’d never seen it this low.”
A great unknown
Lake Michigan is no longer just a Great Lake; it is a great unknown.
More ominous than the all-time low the lake touched this winter is the fact that it came after languishing for 14 years below its long-term average — another record. And when it did initially drop below that long-term average, it plunged three feet between 1998 and 1999 — yet another record for water lost from one year to the next.
Despite man-made tinkering, water levels in the Great Lakes have remained remarkably stable for generations. Now that exquisite balance may be headed out of whack. One culprit is a natural one.WATCH MOTION GRAPHIC >>
The lake level, of course, has been in constant flux since record-keeping began a century and a half ago. Tracking it on a graph is like looking at an EKG monitor. Little blips and dips reflect seasonal oscillations that cause the lake, in a typical year, to vary about a foot between summertime high and wintertime low.
In addition to those annual ebbs and flows are larger swings that span decades tied to long-term weather patterns, with Lake Michigan’s record high topping out more than 6 feet above the record low set this January.
Draw a red line through the middle of all those highs and lows and you get what was, up until 1999, Lake Michigan’s long-term average surface level — 579 feet above sea level.
That year the lake mysteriously took its 3-foot dive, and it has stayed down for nearly a decade and a half — and counting.
Previous drops into low water, in the 1920s, ’30s, ’50s and ’60s, were always followed by a quick and sustained rebound beyond the long-term average. Usually it happened within three or four years, though the slow but steady climb during the Dust Bowl droughts took the better part of the ’30s.
But with this ongoing low water, which has never shown an indication that it is on a sustained track back toward average, decades of rhythmic pulses hitched to the red line appear to have stopped, or at least stalled.
Frank Quinn, a retired hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, has been tracking lake levels for more than a half century, and he’s heard all manner of crazy theories for the previous lows. Atom bomb testing was a popular culprit in the 1960s, and rumors swirled for years of a secret canal under Niagara Falls channeling flows to thirstier regions.
The truth was always a little drier — the lakes were simply suffering from a lack of rain and snow.
What’s going on today is different.
“Based on the precipitation we’ve had, we would not expect to have the record low lake levels that we have,” Quinn said.
Last year was indeed extremely dry. But the past 14 years, on average, have been wetter than usual for Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are actually one body of water connected at the Straits of Mackinac.
Even so, the lakes remain about a foot and a half below their average for this time of year.
So where did all the water go?
This is not a story about climate change.
It is a story about climate changed.