Climate, Streamflow, and Lake-Level Trends in the Great Lakes Basin of the United States and Canada, Water Years 1960–2015

Scientific Investigations Report 2019-5003
Prepared in cooperation with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative
By: , and 



Water levels in the Great Lakes fluctuate substantially because of complex interactions among inputs (precipitation and streamflow), outputs (evaporation and outflow), and other factors. This report by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was completed to describe trends in climate, streamflow, lake levels, and major water-budget components within the Great Lakes Basin for water years (WYs) 1960–2015 (study period). Resulting trends are applicable only to the study period and should not be considered indicative of longer-term trends.

Analyses of climate trends used monthly data from the Parameter-elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model, which are available only for the United States. Trend tests were completed for annual and seasonal time series of monthly means for total precipitation, daily minimum air temperature (Tmin), and daily maximum air temperature (Tmax). Statistical significance for all time-trend tests (climate, streamflow, and lake levels) was determined using the Mann‑Kendall test for probability values less than or equal to 0.10. Trend analyses were completed without adjustments for serial correlation; however, a modified Mann-Kendall test was subsequently used to examine potential effects of short-term persistence in time-series data. Effects of short-term persistence were considered inconsequential for climate data and minor for streamflow data; however, the presence of short-term persistence in water-budget components had more substantial effects on trend analyses.

Spatial distributions of trends in climatic data for WYs 1960–2015 for the U.S. part of the Great Lakes Basin (land only) indicate (1) generally ubiquitous upward trends in Tmin and (2) a sharp transition from neutral or downward trends in precipitation northwest of Lake Michigan to generally upward trends east of Lake Michigan. Trends in Tmax were not statistically significant. Analyses of annual climatic data aggregated for the U.S. land part of the Great Lakes Basin indicated statistically significant upward trends for precipitation and Tmin, and similar statistically significant trends existed for all the individual lake subbasins except Lake Superior.

Of 103 U.S. Geological Survey streamgages analyzed for streamflow trends, 71 had significant annual trends (54 upward and 17 downward). Downward trends in annual streamflow are concentrated northwest of Lake Michigan (16 streamgages), and upward trends are concentrated east of Lake Michigan (53 streamgages). Of the 71 streamgages with significant annual trends, 70 had at least one season with a significant trend that matched the annual trend direction.

Of 35 Environment and Climate Change Canada streamgages analyzed, 22 had significant upward trends in annual streamflow, and all but 1 of these 22 had at least one season with a significant upward trend. None of the Environment and Climate Change Canada streamgages had significant downward annual trends, and only one had a significant downward seasonal trend.

Trends in lake levels and several major water-budget components affecting lake levels were analyzed for the study period. Significant downward trends in lake level and outflow for Lake Superior are driven primarily by low lake levels and outflows during WYs 1998–2014. A significant downward trend in runoff from the contributing drainage area also is indicated, which is consistent with numerous streamgages northwest of Lake Michigan with significant downward trends in annual streamflow. A significant upward trend in annual overlake evaporation also is indicated, which is consistent with the spatially distributed upward trends in annual Tmin.

The sum of overlake precipitation and runoff from the contributing drainage area for each of the Great Lakes, less overlake evaporation, composes a variable called net basin supply (NBS). A significant downward trend in NBS is indicated for Lake Superior, which is consistent with significant trends for individual components of runoff (downward) and evaporation (upward) that contributed to a significant downward trend for lake outflow. Statistically significant upward trends in NBS for Lake Saint Clair and Lake Ontario offset the downward trend for Lake Superior and combine with nonsignificant upward trends in NBS for Lakes Michigan and Huron and Lake Erie to produce a neutral trend in NBS for the basin.

A predictable pattern in monthly mean lake levels is noted for Lake Superior, with the minimum for each year usually during or near March and the maximum commonly during or near September or October. When an October lake level is in a period of substantial decline, potential for an ensuing short-term period of below-mean lake levels is enhanced. Downstream from Lake Superior, monthly lake levels have sawtooth patterns that somewhat resemble those for Lake Superior but with decreased predictability in timing.

Similar to Lake Superior, Lakes Michigan and Huron, Lake Saint Clair, and Lake Erie all have a prolonged period of low lake levels around WYs 1998–2014; however, a significant downward trend is indicated only for Lakes Michigan and Huron. All these lakes also have a period of low lake levels before about WY 1968, when minimum lake levels were lower than during WYs 1998–2014. The significant downward trend of outflow from Lake Superior is carried downstream into Lakes Michigan and Huron; however, trends in outflow from the next three lakes downstream (Lakes Saint Clair, Erie, and Ontario) are offset by increased precipitation and runoff and are not significant.

Suggested Citation

Norton, P.A., Driscoll, D.G., and Carter, J.M., 2019, Climate, streamflow, and lake-level trends in the Great Lakes Basin of the United States and Canada, water years 1960–2015: Scientific Investigations Report 2019–5003, 47 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods and Data Sources
  • Trends in Climate, Streamflow, and Lake Levels
  • Implications Regarding Serial Correlation in Trend Analyses
  • Summary
  • References Cited
  • Appendix

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Climate, streamflow, and lake-level trends in the Great Lakes Basin of the United States and Canada, water years 1960–2015
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2019-5003
DOI 10.3133/sir20195003
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Midwest Regional Director's Office
Description Report: vi, 47 p.; Appendix Figures; Appendix Tables: 5
Country Canada, United States
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y