Great Lakes water levels for the summer of 2016 – too high, too low, or just right?

One of the strongest El Nino events on record has significantly influenced the weather in the Great Lakes region this winter. What does it mean for this summer’s lake levels?

Lake Michigan-Huron monthly mean water levels. Courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers

Lake Michigan-Huron monthly mean water levels. Courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers

Late February in Michigan means that most of us are looking ahead to the longer, warmer, brighter days of spring and summer.  Warmer weather provides many opportunities to get out on the Great Lakes, and when people think about getting out on the lakes – particularly if they are boating – they think about water levels.  Previous Michigan State University Extension articles have looked at Great Lakes water levels and water level changes over different periods of time, as in What’s up [or not], with Great Lakes water levels/Part 1, and What’s up [or not] with Great Lakes water levels/Part 2).  And given the strong El Nino event we’ve been experiencing, we’ve also looked at both The science behind El Nino and the added complexity El Nino adds to Great Lakes water levels forecasting. But how do we put this all together in a way that looks ahead to this summer?

Let’s begin with available information sources.  The NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory offers online Great Lakes information through their Great Lakes Water Level Dashboard.  This easy-to-use tool allows anyone to view current conditions as well as short and long-term forecasts.  You may also graphically manipulate historical datasets and download data for offline analysis.

But probably the best known source of information on water levels is the Monthly Bulletin of Great Lakes Water Levels produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Bulletin is available free online, provides current information on Great Lakes hydrology, and projections that extend six months into the future.  And in response to the very strong El Nino, the Corps developed a new Great Lakes Water Level Outlook 2015/16 El Nino forecasting product which takes into account ice cover and precipitation associated with the two strongest previous El Nino periods on record. 

The Monthly Bulletin provides the base information we need to find answers to our questions about this summer’s likely lake level highs, to which we should consider adding information based on historical El Nino effects.  The Corps of Engineers has reviewed current climate forecasts and anticipates “warm winter temperatures accompanied by drier conditions” which would indicate a bias toward their “low ice, low precipitation” forecasting scenario.  Using this scenario, the following is what we might reasonably expect this summer for each of the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair.

All levels are monthly averages in feet

Long term average max

2014 max

2015 max

2016 Bulletin

Forecast max

2016 Bulletin + El Nino forecast max

Superior

602.13

602.72

602.66

~602.5

~602.1

Michigan-Huron

579.30

579.20

579.82

~580.2

~579.5

St. Clair

574.74

575.03

575.98

~575.8

~575.3

Erie

571.95

572.18

573.29

~572.6

~572.7

Ontario

246.23

246.62

246.75

~246.1

N/A*

* The Corps does not yet have Lake Ontario water level outlooks that include possible El Nino effects.

As the above information shows, 2016 Great Lakes water levels are forecasted to be similar to those experienced in 2015, with slight increases possibly seen on Lakes Michigan and Huron, and slightly lower levels on Lakes Superior, St. Clair, Erie and Ontario.  Are these projections certain?  Certainly not. We have experienced rapid and dramatic changes in lake levels in the past, as recently as 2013 when Lakes Michigan and Huron rebounded from their newly established record lows.  But they do provide a likely glimpse into the future using the best data available.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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