Letter From Michiana: Weird Spring, weird climate

By David Hoppe

Spring in Michiana has been weird — by turns glorious and dire. Call it climate change, or climate caprice, this season has not unfolded so much as stuttered into being, showing signs of familiar rebirth, followed by whacked regressions so gratuitously extreme it’s hard not to call them spiteful.

In our yard, daffodils were blooming and the ground was covered with a multi-colored spray of micro-petal wildflowers. But as we left a performance by the new dance group, Michigan City Moves, at the national park on Saturday night, we were whipped by a snarling wind that lashed our faces with an exfoliating mash of ice particles.

You could have mistaken Lake Michigan for the North Sea.

Only the day before, the high temperature had skirted 70 (F). You could practically see peoples’ bodies softening; the optimism that comes with the great unclenching as winter dwindles in life’s rearview mirror.

People who have lived here for decades will tell you about how the lake and the weather around it are cyclical.  There have been periods when Lake Michigan has risen, and periods when it has fallen back. In 2013, for example, the lake was at a low ebb.  Then, a year later, it came roaring back, in the form of a mighty Halloween storm that ate up foredunes.  That, basically, is the lake we’re living with today. It’s reached one of the highest levels ever recorded.

The lake’s cycles can seem hard to predict. They happen and people get used to them, forgetting that things are bound to change. Now, though, there’s a wild card that’s put the old certainties in a new light — make that a strobe light: climate change.

A growing body of authoritative climate research about the Great Lakes (see below for links) has been piling up for the past few years. It shows that our region is getting warmer and wetter than the rest of the country. Precipitation here is up around 10 percent, or twice as much as the continental U.S.  Extreme rainstorms are accounting for a lot of this — the frequency of these storms is increasing. Heat waves — days when the temp goes over 90 degrees — are also expected to increase, which will only boost summer lake water temperatures, which have been rising steadily over the past six decades. The confluence of heavy rains and warming lake water is leading to more sewer overflow and nutrient runoff, which threatens the water quality in this fresh water sea.

How these trends affect lake levels is difficult to gauge. On the one hand, more rain should mean more water in the lake. But the warmer air and water temps make for more evaporation. Volatility is what’s most likely, which, on the human end of things, should rhyme with humility.

The climate’s trendlines are already creating stress-points on the infrastructure in shoreline communities. Roads, waste disposal, the energy grid and the cost of living are all taking hits. Notions about lakeshore development need to be revisited. Like it or not, the carrying capacity of our communities is limited by conditions that, to a large extent, we have inadvertently created. It’s past time to think afresh about what constitutes growth around here.

This place is weird enough already.

For more information, check out the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

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