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Two Great Lakes hit record low levels: Climate crisis or natural cycle?

Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are at their lowest levels since record keeping began a century ago, but experts say it's too soon to tell exactly what combination of issues is causing the drop.

By Staff writer / February 7, 2013

A sandbar is exposed by low water on Portage Lake in Onekama, Mich., last November, which has made nearby docks and marinas largely unusable. Water levels in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are the lowest they’ve ever been since record keeping began in 1918, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

John Flesher/AP/File

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Water levels in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are the lowest they’ve ever been since record keeping began in 1918, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. That finding, which corresponds to a decade of diminished precipitation and higher temperatures, worries barging and commercial fishing interests, with both industries saying it will have harsh economic consequences.

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"We're in an extreme situation," Keith Kompoltowicz, watershed hydrology chief for the Corps’s Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Office in Detroit, told The Associated Press Tuesday.

The Corps reported this week that both lakes were 29 inches below their long-term average and that levels had declined 17 inches since January 2012 alone. The agency said the water levels have been below average for the past 14 years, which is the longest period of sustained below-average levels since 1918. Continued record lows are expected for the first few months of this year.

A hot and dry summer in the Midwest increased evaporation throughout the fall, followed by several lower-than-average snowfalls in the winter. That led to a seasonal rise in both lakes last year of only four inches, which is eight inches below normal, the Corps said.

The decline presents a long-term threat to carriers that rely on the Great Lakes system for transport. The American Waterways Operators, an advocacy group for the tugboat, towboat, and barge industry in Arlington, Va., said that every inch of water loss in the Great Lakes decreases the carrying capacity of a single barge by 17 tons of cargo. That means that the loss of a foot would cause a capacity loss of 204 tons per barge.

In a statement, the organization called the water loss “a severe, ongoing situation.”

Similarly, the Lake Carriers’ Association, an advocacy group representing 17 companies that use the Great Lakes for cargo transport, estimated that some 10,000 tons of cargo could not be transported in 2012. Charter boat and commercial fishing operators around the Great Lakes region also said they fear tourism dollars will decline during their busy summer and fall season.

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