5 Ways Climate Change is Impacting Lake Michigan Right Now

If you want to see how climate change is affecting Chicago today, you just need a quick visit to Lake Michigan. Recent years have brought various changes to the city’s most famous body of water as climate change has quickly disrupted the local ecosystem. How is it changing? We look at a few different ways below.

Rising water levels

In the fall of 2019, water levels on Lake Michigan were so high, it left some residents wondering if the city would be reinvented with new forms of transportation. “Well, these days it’s easy to imagine that we’ll soon be canoeing down Lake Shore Drive.” Monica Eng wrote in a piece for WBEZ

The rapid change in recent years has been astonishing. “#LakeMichigan continues to be on the rise,” The National Weather Service tweeted. “In fact, it has risen 6″ in the past month. Ever wonder how much water it takes to obtain such a rise over the entire lake? This requires roughly 2.335 trillion gallons of water.


When water levels rise, the impact on the local shoreline is brutal. Erosion damages the area and large parts of the beach are lost to the water. The landscape of the city’s beaches have changed for the worse and limited space once enjoyed by local residents. According to WBEZ, some northern suburbs are building breakwaters to protect against waves. Chicago officials also announced in the fall that the city would install barriers along the lake to reduce erosion issues. While necessary, these barriers can be costly to local residents. Climate change will not be cheap for taxpayers. 


Increased precipitation during rainy seasons bring on more erosion and damage. Colder winters in Chicago brought on by the polar vortex of recent years reduce evaporation in the lake during warmer periods. As a result, we see greater flooding in the area and less protection in the local ecosystem to reduce the damage done by these floods. More water. Fewer natural barriers. It’s the kind of negative feedback loop with climate change that can be really scary. 

Lower water levels 

Despite high levels in 2019, Lake Michigan was actually at a historic low point as late as 2013. Climate change causes both high and low water levels – how can both be true?  “Because of climate change, when the global weather patterns that impact regional climate cause more precipitation, that precipitation is more severe. ” Matthew Field writes in the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists. “When those same patterns translate to drier weather, that weather causes greater evaporation from the Great Lakes.”

Clearly, flooding and high water levels are more of a concern presently, but extreme dry periods in the future are certainly possible as well. 

Disappearing Fish

Climate change not only threatens our shorelines, the health of local beaches, and the businesses that rely on the crowds it attracts. Entire species of fish could be threatened by disruption in the local ecosystem. “Warmer and wetter climate in the Midwest could lead to the displacement of some cold water fish species in southern Lake Michigan and trigger die-offs in smaller inland lakes.” The Associated Press reported in 2018. 

If we don’t address these drastic shifts in Lake Michigan, one of the great reasons to live in Chicago could soon be forever changed. We’d like to keep the lake looking beautiful instead. 

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