Lake Superior water level nearing record high

High lake levels cut into dunes on Park Point. Photo courtesy of Catherine Winter

High lake levels cut into dunes on Park Point. Photo courtesy of Catherine Winter

After a year of above average precipitation, the water level in Lake Superior is the highest it has been in two decades and is inches away from its highest recorded level ever. According to data produced by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the lake is sitting nearly two feet above the average level for this time of year.

The high water levels are causing increased erosion along shorelines, especially the sandy shorelines of the south shore, which can be problematic for those who live along the lake.

“In the lake, there is an underwater sand dune that helps out with storm events,” said Ed Parzych, a construction representative at the United States Army Corps of Engineers. “Water can move sediment back out into the lake or down the shorelines, which is removing a so called protector of land and then water is getting into areas it shouldn’t be and that leads to increased erosion.”

Another factor that can influence the water level in Lake Superior is a phenomenon called a “seiche.” When wind blows over the lake for a sustained amount of time, it can pile the water on one side of the lake.


Residents living along Duluth’s Park Point are feeling the effects of the high water as well. Ruth McCutcheon, who has lived on the bay side of Park Point with her husband for over 30 years, has had to make many improvements to her property in order to combat the high waters.

“Two thousand dollars worth of sandbags,” McCutcheon said, “we wiped out Menards.”

In addition to sandbags, the McCutcheons have a retaining wall along the edge of their yard next to the water and had to add another timber on top to keep the water off of their lawn. Other residents along Park Point who are having issues with flooding in their homes have resorted to using sump pumps, which are pumps used to remove water out of low areas such as basements.

“With this great body of water and all of the stuff we love about it, there come risks,” McCutcheon said.

If anyone is benefitting from the high water levels, it’s the ships that run along the Great Lakes. Jim Sharrow, director of port planning and resiliency for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said that shippers like high water levels because it allows them to run more efficiently. They can load more cargo at one time, which in turn increases revenue.

Ships load cargo based on what is called a load-line, which is a mark on a ship that shows how deep a ship can safely be submerged in water while loading cargo.

“It gives the ships some clearance,” Sharrow said.

High waves and lake levels cause fallen pine trees on Park Point. Photo courtesy of Catherine Winter

High waves and lake levels cause fallen pine trees on Park Point. Photo courtesy of Catherine Winter

As the winter months approach, the lake level usually begins to drop. This year, however, the lake has remained steady at its high level and has not begun to recede. This could be dangerous because it is the time of year when the Lake Superior region sees a lot of storms, also known as the “gales of November.”

“We are getting more severe storms,” said Tom Beery, a resilience specialist for the Minnesota Sea Grant, referencing the recent storm at the end of October. “If we get another severe storm, we could really be in trouble.”

According to Beery, climatologists are looking into whether or not it is possible that we are receiving increased precipitation due to climate change. Beery said it is not certain if this is just a blip in the normal weather trends, or if there really is something going on that is changing the intensity of storms.

If the water levels in Lake Superior continue to stay where they are at and if precipitation levels continue to be above average, it is very possible that the lake could break a record for its highest level in recorded history next year.


NewsCarly Schwieters