Climate Change Threatens Chicago’s Balancing Act

Chicago River

Image: Chait Goli via Pexels

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Chicago was built at the swampy dip between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, supercharged by a 19th century canal that connected the two water bodies. The city exists because the water, until now, has been controllable. But because of climate change, Lake Michigan’s shoreline has been wildly fluctuating, with higher highs and lower lows. The lake used to shift a couple of inches over the years. In the past seven, it oscillated by six feet. As the New York Times reports, “the swings between the two show signs of happening faster than any time in recorded history.” 

Go Deeper: Read the full story, complete with 3D maps.

Why This Matters: The wildly shifting water levels mean that Chicagoans have endured the impacts of both the lake coming into the city, smashing apartment glass windows and flooding streets, and shrinking away, threatening the drinking water supply. The city’s old sewer system is especially an issue on the city’s South Side, where increasing big rains frequently flood basements. Chicago’s infrastructure — like many cities across the country — simply isn’t built for the rapidly changing climate. 

The Climate Science Behind the Shifts: Warmer air holds more moisture, which in turn leads to more rainfall during storms. The average air temperature is up by 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit, creating wetter weather. Hotter air can also increase evaporation, especially coupled with the increase in water temperature: the Great Lakes are an average of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were about 15 years ago.

And according to a new report from NOAA, the lake’s temperature changes reach to its depths, indicating a longer-term, more fundamental shift in the ecosystem and weather patterns. 

This is a big lake,” Craig Stow, a NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory scientist and author of the study, told the Chicago Tribune.That’s a lot of water. That’s a lot of change.”

Planning for the Chicago of the Future: For the city of Chicago and Lake Michigan more broadly, it’s unclear what the future holds, making it difficult to plan. Since 2020, the city has installed thousands of feet of jersey barriers and sandbags to keep roads safe from flooding. There might be federal funding for an offshore barrier. What is certain is that the lake is profoundly changing. 

From the conversations I have with colleagues, the consistent message I hear is that we can expect extremes on both ends,” John Allis, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Great Lakes hydraulics and hydrology office told the NYT.

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