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Key components of water availability in a hydrologic system4 are the amount of water in storage and the variability of that amount. In the Great Lakes Basin, a vast amount of water is stored in the lakes themselves. Because of the lakes’ size, small changes in water levels cause huge changes in the amount of water in storage. Approximately 5,439 mi3 of water, measured at chart datum, is stored in the Great Lakes. A change of 1 ft in water level over the total Great Lakes surface area of 94,250 mi2 means a change of 18 mi3 of water in storage. Changes in lake level over time also play an important role in human activities and in coastal processes and nearshore ecosystems, including development and maintenance of beaches, dunes, and wetlands.

The purpose of this report is to present recorded and reconstructed (pre-historical) changes in water levels in the Great Lakes, relate them to climate changes of the past, and highlight major water-availability implications for storage, coastal ecosystems, and human activities. Reconstructed water-level changes have not been completed for all Great Lakes; consequently, this report presents these changes primarily for Lakes Michigan and Huron, with some reference to Lake Superior also.


National Water Availability and Use Program

Citation/Publisher Attribution

Wilcox, D.A, Thompson, T.A., Booth, R.K., and Nicholas, J.R., 2007, Lake-level variability and water availability in the Great Lakes: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1311, 25 p.