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Water levels continue to rise in Lake Michigan due to climate change

Water levels in Lake Michigan are at an all-time high, posing potential threats to shoreline homes and Evanston beaches. Environmental engineering professor Aaron Packman and Evanston Director of Sustainability Cara Pratt discuss possible impacts and solutions.

SHVETA SHAH: Rainy days in Evanston are becoming more frequent and harsh, causing higher sea levels in Lake Michigan’s waters. These higher water levels are wiping out beaches and accelerating shoreline erosion at Evanston. I wanted to learn just how large these impacts may be, and what we can do to help.

[nat sound of waves crashing]


SHVETA SHAH: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Shveta Shah. This is Environmentality, a podcast series exploring the climate crisis, environmental justice and ecology in the Evanston and Northwestern communities. Today, we’re diving into Lake Michigan, where water levels hit a record high in 2020. We’re turning to sustainability experts to learn more about how rising lake levels are going to affect the Evanston community.


SHVETA SHAH: It’s not abnormal for Lake Michigan’s water levels to fluctuate, according to Evanston’s Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator Cara Pratt —

CARA PRATT: — but also, climate change is a big contributor to our current problem.

SHVETA SHAH: I asked her what the main causes of rising lake levels are.

CARA PRATT: Certainly increased rainfall is a particular problem for the Great Lakes as a whole in terms of causing lake levels to rise.

SHVETA SHAH: And because rising lake levels mean there might be more flooding events and erosion, it’s important to bolster shorelines. Ever noticed the wall of boulders along the part of the Lakefill that faces Lake Michigan? Aaron Packman, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of Northwestern’s Center for Water Research, said it’s there to prevent erosion.

AARON PACKMAN: So there was always this wall of riprap —

SHVETA SHAH: — a layer of rocky material used to bolster a shoreline —

AARON PACKMAN: — of large boulders out at the edge of the Lakefill. Northwestern put a big row of bags full of gravel material along parts of the lakeshore that had been eroding to help protect the walkway and the green space behind the wall of riprap.

SHVETA SHAH: He said the shoreline along the Lakefill has always been artificial —

AARON PACKMAN: That was put in place because the original shoreline was all mud—

SHVETA SHAH: But has still changed a lot since Northwestern’s Lakefill was created in the 1960s.

[nat sound waves crashing]

AARON PACKMAN: Now you’re starting to see more erosion. I think the response is just going to be to harden the shoreline further.

SHVETA SHAH: But the erosion isn’t contained to just NU. Packman said shoreline erosion is affecting beaches across Evanston too.

AARON PACKMAN: Some of the beaches have been disappearing, like the Evanston Dog Beach completely eroded away and is no longer there. They had to make a new dog park.

SHVETA SHAH: Erosion is a huge problem — particularly for people who live along the shore.

AARON PACKMAN: For example, apartment buildings or houses that are built right up to the shoreline. People had substantial property damage. So these things are probably gonna get worse.

SHVETA SHAH: According to Cara, Evanston has an active shoreline assessment program to try to mitigate the damage. The solutions are similar to what NU did with the Lakefill.

CARA PRATT: A permanent repair would be something like riprap or large rocks that would be installed on the shoreline to help mitigate erosion. Temporary repairs would be things like sandbags that would be installed until there’s funding or a project that could be a little bit more permanent.

SHVETA SHAH: Cara said Evanston’s Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT for short, helps train residents on how to help with these efforts.


SHVETA SHAH: The issue of rising lake levels expands far beyond just higher water levels and eroding shorelines. Climate change also means more warm air in the atmosphere, which increases evaporation, putting more water vapor in the atmosphere to turn into rain and snow.

AARON PACKMAN: The longer term projection is that our climate would be warmer and somewhat wetter.

SHVETA SHAH: A warmer and wetter climate combined with higher sea levels means that during storms, the amount of water pushed toward the coast is enormous. This increases the likelihood of flooding and more destruction.

CARA PRATT: Wind storms and severe weather events generally exacerbate problems having to do with coastal erosion.

SHVETA SHAH: These problems can be especially concerning for Evanston’s most vulnerable populations.

CARA PRATT: When you have an unhoused population or people who live in precarious housing and temperatures exceed 100 degrees, it becomes really unsafe for people to be outdoors, exposed to sunlight.

SHVETA SHAH: These changes to the local climate play into environmental justice issues that have existed for decades. In 1995, the city of Chicago faced a massive heat wave which killed 739 Chicago residents — many of them poor, elderly and Black.

CARA PRATT: There was an incident in the city of Chicago where there was a mass casualty event associated with extreme heat. So we already know that’s a huge risk in our community.

SHVETA SHAH: Cara said the awareness of these types of events is driving Evanston to make housing more accessible and climate resilient.

CARA PRATT: Promoting affordable housing as a whole but then also making our existing and naturally occurring, affordable housing more resilient to the effects of climate change. So that’s making homes better insulated, making them more energy efficient, so that it’s not as expensive to live there.

SHVETA SHAH: Lake Michigan’s rising water levels are a fairly large-scale issue. But Evanston residents can still be part of the solution. Cara recommends thinking about everyday ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions —

CARA PRATT: — which might not have an exact tangible effect on our current lake level problem, but years into the future, it would help mitigate potential coastal erosion that would be exacerbated if we don’t reduce our emissions.

SHVETA SHAH: Evanston’s Climate Action Resilience Plan, or CARP, was created to combat climate change in a systematic way. It includes providing properties in the city with 100% renewable electricity by 2030 and making the city carbon neutral by 2050. But climate advocates say a lack of funding and resources is stopping the city from taking action. However, in the six months she’s been working for the city, Cara said she’s been focused on interacting with the community and supporting an active movement for environmental justice.

CARA PRATT: There’s been such an active community engagement and formal community groups that are dedicated to climate change for decades of the specific climate commitments started in the early 2000s.

SHVETA SHAH: Evanston residents are stepping up to help, giving the city hope for the future.

CARA PRATT: I think Evanstonians have a global mindset. And so I think, because we have a diverse community of people who come from often, all over the world, there has to be a consideration for how the actions in countries like the United States affect coastal communities.


SHVETA SHAH: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Shveta Shah. Thank you for listening to this episode of Environmentality. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lucia Barnum, the digital managing editors are
Will Clark and Katrina Pham and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

E-mail: [email protected]
Twitter: @shvetashah17

Related Stories:
— Northwestern tackles coastal stabilization project as lake levels continue to threaten shorelines
— High Lake Michigan water levels pose public safety concerns
— Rathnavel: Lake Michigan’s effect on coastal housing cannot be washed away

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