Atlantis On The Great Lakes - The Years Project

Atlantis On The Great Lakes

By Isabella Colello

     I spent most of childhood and adolescent years on the lower Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. It was inevitable for water to hold an important, controlling, and driving role in my life. The name of my childhood hometown was even ”Watertown,” and a convenient half hour drive to these remarkable bodies of water. However, when I returned home after my first year of college, my mom greeted me at the front door with rainboots and a cardboard-like rain suit. Some of the places I knew well and relied on were underwater. Even for a town like Watertown precipitation hit record highs in 2017. 

   Over the past five years, rare and extreme flooding events have occurred on all five of the Great Lakes, and on rivers flowing in and out of them. Many local residents report they had never seen such severe water levels on the lakes. The Great Lakes have more coastline than either the Pacific and Atlantic side of the continental United States. Which leaves many freshwater shoreline communities at risk of destruction due to the climate crisis and water level rise. As climate and weather patterns continue to alter these landscapes, they will become more vulnerable to submersion. Extreme weather has been exacerbated by climate change and has created irreversible damage to these water systems including shoreline erosion, residential and wildlife displacement, delayed springtime planting, property damage, and the possibility for water contamination.

     Canada and the United States have partial control of the water levels of Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River as dams to the waterway were primarily created for international trading. Then in the winter of 2016 the International Joint Commission (IJC) approved Plan 2014, which aimed to better mimic the “natural river” conditions that existed before the damming events in the mid-1900s. The goal was to help restore wetlands surrounding the area as well as damaged shoreline communities previously impacted by a tighter range of water levels. The Plan contributed to a heavy alteration of the landscape of the Great Lakes waterway in the immediate years, and many residents disapproved. 

     The flowing of the great lakes into the St. Lawrence River is unique because of the massive volume of water, and its complexity makes water levels cyclical. These cycles combined with the amount of water creates hotspots of moisture and weather movement making it a humid-continental system. You may often hear about the high snowfall rates in the northern and midwestern states, these weather patterns are commonly known as “lake effect.” Essentially what happens is the warmer lake temperatures generate humid conditions year round. When the humidity mixes with cold air it creates precipitation bubbles, dumping buckets of snow and rain onto nearby communities. However scientists and climatologists are concerned that precipitation rates are increasing and becoming more concentrated near deeper lakes and surrounding areas. They are predicting an increase in intense weather and precipitation, and earlier snow melts. According to the 2019 Great Lakes Climate Change Report, between 1901 and 2015 the Great Lakes region saw an almost 10 percent increase in annual precipitation. When compared to the 4 percent that the continental U.S. faced, this is substantial. Massive warming events and rise in temperatures in the Northeast appears to be the culprit. This is because warmer air can hold more water vapor, leading to more precipitation. 

    The combination of new water regulations and unpredictable precipitation rates merged to create what scientists called the “perfect storm.” Until 2017, the Great Lakes System experienced opposite abnormalities; record-low water levels and drought conditions that lasted into the autumn months. In an Earth and Space Science News Article during the 2017 flood, NOAA hydrologist Andrew Gronewold stated: “We went from record lows over a 100-year [period] to a record high in just 5 years.” This left local communities confused and created hazards for recreational and commercial boating, residential areas, and wetland habitats. 

    When the snow melted in the Spring of 2017, government officials and regulators never could have predicted the outcome. Intense spring rainstorms smashed against the shores of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. In one year the Great Lakes water system broke ten high water-level records. In the Spring of 2017 shoreline communities and islands, and even entire ecosystems were underwater and floating downstream toward the Atlantic Ocean. Seasonal and year-round residents watched as water levels rose more than three feet above average, striking dangerous and damaging conditions for the surrounding areas. This was similar to 2019 which was declared the wettest year in U.S. history, even following the hot and dry summer of 2018. These patterns have been consistent over recent years and are not expected to end anytime soon. Government officials have regularly stated that this is our “new normal,” but it is uncertain how much habitats and shoreline communities can handle, and will be b to sacrifice in years to come.

     The Great Lakes Seaway is the expressway between the midwest and the Atlantic Ocean and holds a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply. If flooding like this continues it will immediately impact the millions of people residing in shoreline communities; never mind the population of over 78 million people surrounding the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. A “new normal” of unpredictable flooding and extreme weather challenges the decades of livelihoods and communities people have built. In the past three years land has disappeared, businesses and parks couldn’t open, and everything from picnic benches to chunks of wetland could be seen floating down the St. Lawrence River. During these floods, the U.S. and Canada can increase outflow to decrease water levels through the complex dams and locks throughout the system. However during these events flooding was so vigorous that even when the outflow was maximized, the water levels still caused damage to communities. This was not an annual normalcy and continues to alarm and threaten the functionality of the waterway. Even in the early months of 2020, water levels recorded in the Great Lakes Seaway continue to be above average

    Events like these are occurring everywhere; between 1995 and 2015 flooding events have impacted over 2 billion people. This makes flooding the most threatening weather-related disaster. For those communities and residents who have established their lives along these banks, flooding can wash everything away without warning–buckets and sandbags can only go so far. If we do not take steps to address changes in our climate, and speak up towards new policies that alter our nearby environments, we cannot prevent how our natural world will fight back. 

 The waves are getting too close for comfort, so put on your rain boots, and grab your buckets, it’s going to be a wet and wild ride.