In this report, we present recorded and reconstructed (pre-historical) changes in water levels in the Great Lakes, relate them to climate changes of the past, and highlight major water-availability implications for storage, coastal ecosystems, and human activities. 'Water availability,' as conceptualized herein, includes a recognition that water must be available for human and natural uses, but the balancing of how much should be set aside for which use is not discussed.
The Great Lakes Basin covers a large area of North America. The lakes capture and store great volumes of water that are critical in maintaining human activities and natural ecosystems. Water enters the lakes mostly in the form of precipitation and streamflow. Although flow through the connecting channels is a primary output from the lakes, evaporation is also a major output. Water levels in the lakes vary naturally on timescales that range from hours to millennia; storage of water in the lakes changes at the seasonal to millennial scales in response to lake-level changes. Short-term changes result from storm surges and seiches and do not affect storage. Seasonal changes are driven by differences in net basin supply during the year related to snowmelt, precipitation, and evaporation. Annual to millennial changes are driven by subtle to major climatic changes affecting both precipitation (and resulting streamflow) and evaporation. Rebounding of the Earth's surface in response to loss of the weight of melted glaciers has differentially affected water levels. Rebound rates have not been uniform across the basin, causing the hydrologic outlet of each lake to rise in elevation more rapidly than some parts of the coastlines. The result is a long-term change in lake level with respect to shoreline features that differs from site to site.
The reconstructed water-level history of Lake Michigan-Huron over the past 4,700 years shows three major high phases from 2,300 to 3,300, 1,100 to 2,000, and 0 to 800 years ago. Within that record is a quasi-periodic rise and fall of about 160 ? 40 years in duration and a shorter fluctuation of 32 ? 6 years that is superimposed on the 160-year fluctuation. Recorded lake-level history from 1860 to the present falls within the longer-term pattern and appears to be a single 160-year quasi-periodic fluctuation. Independent investigations of past climate change in the basin over the long-term period of record confirm that most of these changes in lake level were responses to climatically driven changes in water balance, including lake-level highstands commonly associated with cooler climatic conditions and lows with warm climate periods. The mechanisms underlying these large hydroclimatic anomalies are not clear, but they may be related to internal dynamics of the ocean-atmosphere system or dynamical responses of the ocean-atmosphere system to variability in solar radiation or volcanic activity.
The large capacities of the Great Lakes allow them to store great volumes of water. As calculated at chart datum, Lake Superior stores more water (2,900 mi3) than all the other lakes combined (2,539 mi3). Lake Michigan's storage is 1,180 mi3; Lake Huron's, 850 mi3; Lake Ontario's, 393 mi3; and Lake Erie's, 116 mi3. Seasonal lake-level changes alter storage by as much as 6 mi3 in Lake Superior and as little as 2.1 mi3 in Lake Erie. The extreme high and low lake levels measured in recorded lake-level history have altered storage by as much as 31 mi3 in Lake Michigan-Huron and as little as 9 mi3 in Lake Ontario. Diversions of water into and out of the lakes are very small compared to the total volume of water stored in the lakes.
The water level of Lake Superior has been regulated since about 1914 and levels of Lake Ontario since about 1960. The range of Lake Superior water-level fluctuations and storage has not been altered greatly by regulation. However, fluctuations on Lake Ontario have been reduced from 6.6 ft preregulation
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Lake-Level Variability and Water Availability in the Great Lakes