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Issues Of The Environment: Climate Change To Cause More Flooding In The Great Lakes Region

University of Michigan

Climate change affects more than just the weather.  It can lead to numerous other problems, such as excessive flooding. In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair chats with Andrew Gronewold, associate professor at the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, about what climate change and flooding mean for the future of the Great Lakes region.


  • Andrew writes in an Op-Ed to the Detroit News, “Catastrophic flooding is ravaging coastal and inland communities across the Central Midwestern United States, including Michigan.”  In early 2019, many Michigan communities have experienced historic flooding events, especially those on the Great Lakes.  Governor Whitner of Michigan declared a state of emergency for southeastern Michigan in response to the early onset of high-water levels, and in anticipation of further and more widespread flooding across the region.
  • As the atmosphere warms, the air holds more water vapor which increases precipitation, meaning more rain and snow.  The excess moisture results in more flooding.  This is especially true for the Great Lakes states.
  • A new report (commissioned by Environmental Policy and Law Center, authored by a consortium of experts from the Great Lakes region, including the UM staff, and published in March 2019), points out that the Great Lakes states are warming faster than the rest of the country, and as this trend continues, more flooding is in store.
  • The report states, “Overall, U.S. annual precipitation increased 4% between 1901 and 2015, but the Great Lakes region saw an almost 10% increase over this interval with more of this precipitation coming as unusually large events. In the future, precipitation will likely redistribute across the seasons.  We expect wetter winters and springs, while summer precipitation should decrease by 5-15% for most of Great Lake states by 2100.” 
  • The most worrisome results of increased flooding in Michigan are disruptions to agriculture (planting delays, wet soils, and soil erosion); water quality problems (flooding inundates already stressed water treatment systems, leading to sewage overflows, increased in toxic algae and public health issues caused by excess runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus); environmental disruption that threatens fish and wildlife; and complication in shipping industry on the Great Lakes.
  • Andrew Gronewold, Associate Professor, School for Environment and Sustainability, writes, “As we look ahead, it is important for residents of Michigan and the United States to have the foundational resources and knowledge to anticipate and respond to these events.  It is even more critical that people around the world heed the warning of changes in the distribution of water at a global scale.”  

Additional Resources: 

"Climate change is driving rapid shifts between high and low water levels on the Great Lakes"

According to the National Weather Service:

  • Water levels on the Great Lakes are running high and could approach record territory this summer.
  • New York state is bracing for flooding along the shoreline of Lake Ontario.
  • Lakeshore flooding is already occurring in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.
  • Great Lakes tributary waters have been filled by numerous spring rain events in the central U.S.

Recent rainfall has already-high water levels surging in the Great Lakes, contributing to flooding along the lakeshores in parts of Ohio and Michigan, and New York is expected to follow suit in the days ahead (May 10, 2019).  Flooding is already occurring in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan, as western Lake Erie is in "uncharted territory with near-record-high levels," according to the National Weather Service.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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