The frozen opalescent lake and thin, gray sky fade together into white light where the horizon should be. Tall, skeletal grasses shiver on the beach in a wind that makes any sliver of exposed skin burn. The Arni J. Richter, an icebreaking ferry, is about to pull away from Northport Pier for its second and final trip of the day to Washington Island. It’s loaded with food and fuel for the more than 700 hardy residents who call the remote island, just north of Door County peninsula in Wisconsin, home.
People have lived on Washington Island for over 160 years. They’re proud of their tight-knit community and their Icelandic heritage. But life on the island is threatened. For the past 15 years, islanders have watched Lake Michigan slowly disappear. Last January, the lake hit a record low, 29 inches below the long-term average as measured since 1918. The Richter Ferry was just inches away from grounding in some spots along its increasingly treacherous six-mile route to the island.
The Great Lakes, which contain one-fifth of the world’s fresh water supply, are sometimes referred to as America’s “northern coast.” As communities along the rest of the nation’s shorelines brace for rising waters brought by climate change, however, and spend billions on replacing sand swept out to sea in storms, the communities of the Great Lakes find themselves with more and more sand and less and less water.
“The island depends on the ferry for everything,” said Hoyt Purinton, President and Captain of the Washington Island Ferry Line and great grandson of the ferry’s first captain. “If the ferry can’t get to the island, the island won’t survive. Even if you could find another way to get food and fuel over there, if there’s no easy way for tourists to make the trip, the fragile island economy dies and the community and culture goes with it.”
As the lake retreats, some people blame the Army Corps of Engineers for dredging projects that widen channels leading out of Lake Michigan. Others wonder if the watershed can no longer support the four million people in the U.S. and Canada who now rely on the lakes for their drinking water.
Increasingly, scientists believe that climate change is driving the warming waters and setting up a new regime in the Great Lakes that may lead to lower lake levels and a permanently altered shoreline.
Ever since the 1990s, Lake Michigan has been predominantly below its long-term water level average, and trending downwards. Water levels plummeted precipitously in the late 1990s, after a strong El Niño event warmed up the waters.
“That event drastically increased water temperatures,” explained Drew Gronewold, a physical scientist at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL). “Over the course of just one year, water temperatures went up by 2.5 degrees Celsius. That’s huge. And the cycle is reinforcing; one really warm year led to more than a decade of dropping lake levels.”
As the lake warms, it’s changing the water levels, as well. Most evaporation on the Great Lakes occurs in the fall when the lake is still warm from the summer, but the air has turned cold and dry. When the water is warmer than usual, the peak evaporation season begins earlier and lasts longer into the early winter. Warmer water also leads to less ice formation and fewer days of ice cover.
Ice cover also impacts lake levels. It prevents evaporation from the lakes during the winter and for as long as it lasts into the spring. And it affects how warm the water will be that year, and thus the rate of evaporation — the more ice cover, the colder the water stays into the summer and fall, leading to less evaporation. The reverse is also true — less ice cover will lead to warmer water and more evaporation.
“The 1998 El Niño gave us a taste of what we can expect to see on the Great Lakes in a changing climate,” said Don Scavia, Co-Director of the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments (GLISA). “The El Niño-driven warmer temperatures are a surrogate for what the future climate might be. The lower lake levels during that time may be a signal of what might be happening under longer term climate change.”
In other words, last winter’s record low lake levels are a glimpse of what a warmer climate in the region would do to the lakes — a glimpse that so far has lasted 15 years, set off by one hot summer.
At Newport State Park, one of five state parks in Door County, the vanishing water has changed the shoreline dramatically. The beach, once a wide expanse of silky mustard-colored sand that on a hot summer day would be crawling with a hundred sunscreen-smeared tourists, is now covered in tall reeds, marsh grasses, mud and exposed rocks sheathed in slick green slime. There is no inviting sand, just a marshland down to the water’s edge and the water is clogged with tangled clumps of matted algae like something pulled out of a shower drain.
“I used to constantly get complaints about the appearance of the beach,” said park manager Michelle Hefty. “I’ve been confronted about the grasses encroaching onto the sand and berated about the quantity of insects near the water. It just doesn’t look like that postcard perfect beach anymore.”
Financially, Newport has struggled to keep afloat as tourists seek more manicured picnic spots.
“We’ve had the same budget for the past decade,” said Hefty. “But our costs keep on going up with the increasing price of gas and electricity, while our revenue is shrinking with fewer numbers of visitors.”
Tourism is big business on the Door County peninsula and surrounding islands. According to the Door County Visitors Bureau, tourists pumped $289 million into the local economy in 2012 and supported 2,498 jobs.
State funding only accounts for about 20 percent of the park’s budget; 80 percent of management expenses are supposed to be provided for by park sticker sales and campsite fees.
“We’ve cut back wherever we can,” stressed Hefty. “We don’t plough unless we absolutely have to, we groom the cross-country ski trails less often to save on gas, we turn the thermometer down in the office and pile on the sweaters, but we’re barely breaking even.”
According to Jim Sarkis, founder and principal broker at Sarkis & Associates Realtors, waterfront property values in Door County are also taking a hit — declining by 30 to 35 percent over the last five years.
“Of course, it’s impossible to tease out how much of that decline is because of the lower lake levels and how much of that is just a reflection of the recession and the struggles of the U.S. housing market in general,” said Sarkis, who has been a realtor in Door County for 37 years.
There are some clues, however. Ten years ago, a small private dock would add around $150,000 to the value of a waterfront home. Today, the added value is nothing. That’s because across the county docks which once stood in several feet of water, now appear suspended in the air, legs out of water, sometimes reaching out across nothing but sand and tall grasses.
“The value of those docks was the water around them,” said Sarkis. “Now that that’s gone, they’re really not much more than an elevated bench. If you own a boat, you’ll have to rent a slip in a harbor where they’re dredging.”
Sarkis explained that more and more the phrase “water view” is more appropriate than “waterfront.”
“People can still enjoy the sunsets, even if the water isn’t exactly lapping at their back door,” said Sarkis. “But I have definitely taken clients to properties and had people jokingly say ‘I thought you were showing us a waterfront property’ as they walk the two hundred, maybe four hundred feet down to where the water now sits.”
The winter of 2013-2014 is shaping up to be very different from what the Great Lakes have become accustomed to over the last 15 years. Thanks to the polar air drifting down from Canada, Lake Michigan saw some of its earliest ice in years. Scientists are predicting that if the ice lasts, the lake level could go up by as much as a foot this year. And the colder water could be setting up the lakes for a couple years of recovery.
“The good news is that while in some ways there is a lot of inertia in the Great Lakes system, there is also a lot of interannual variation in the water levels,” said GLISA’s Scavia. “The Great Lakes probably have some time to prepare for the lower lake levels we suspect will come in the future. The key is to use the time, not hope that problem has gone away.”
While this winter’s cold will buy some time for the Great Lakes, scientists emphasize that many concerns and unanswered questions remain. One of the great unknowns in the story of water levels on the Great Lakes is how precipitation patterns will change in the years to come. Some models suggest that precipitation is actually expected to increase, which may help to offset declines caused by increased evaporation.
“The general consensus right now, looking at a broad range of models that have been developed for the Great Lakes, is that there is a big range of variability, but there appears to be a decreasing trend in water levels over the next century,” said Gronewold.
One well-studied aspect of changing precipitation patterns in the Great Lakes is the increasing frequency and severity of spring storms. These powerful downpours, which occur around the same time as farms are being prepared for planting, mean that vast amounts of phosphorus are being washed into the lakes, leading to toxic algae blooms and massive dead zones.
“We’ve seen this mostly on Lake Erie so far,” explained Scavia. “But the problem is starting to be seen in Lake Michigan, as well, and we should expect it to get worse.”
Back at Northport Pier where the Washington Island Ferry loads, a massive dredging project is underway to alleviate some of the stress on the boats and communities that depend on their regular arrival. Work began in September to deepen and widen the half mile channel that leads into Detroit Harbor where the ferry docks on the island. The project will cost about $7 million, $5.2 million of which is being provided by Wisconsin’s Harbor Assistance Program. Washington Island is responsible for the rest of the expenses which will be made up for by removing the dredged sediments.
The project will deepen the channel by three feet to bring it to a total of 17 feet below the low water line, widen the channel by 20 feet and remove 134,500 cubic yards of sediment.
Despite the temporary respite this winter, ferry boat captain Purinton remains concerned about the long-term changes he’s observing on the lake. “I hope people don’t look at the last nine months of cold weather and stop planning for low lake levels,” he said. “That would be a huge mistake. This is the first what I like to call ‘real’ winter that we’ve had in years and years. I think what’s happening now is the anomaly, not the years before.”