WTTW Chicago tonight gave me a yell asking about the record lake levels. I have been watching the evolving large scale forcing behind the recent rains.
It is nice as my work on the NSF funded SAVEUR project (Collaboration between Argonne, Northwestern and the University of IL) gives me a little freedom to do this given our focus on Chicago and the region. In a nutshell: It’s complicated. This time of year we are not particularly strongly impacted by ENSO (Weak but persistent El-Nino) or NAO. But it has rained. A LOT. Chicago beat its all time may record with 8.25 inches (sorry about the old money) of rain.. This is over double its mean rainfall of 3.68 inches. Furthermore the rain has come from a series of torrential persistent (organized) downpours. This has allowed the soil column to becomes so wet it looses the ability to soak, store and evaporate the rain leading to increased run off.
“But wait!” I hear the hydrologists amongst you exclaim, “Only a fraction of the Chicagoland region is in the Great Lakes watershed”. Well you are correct random hydrologist! The figure to the left (from Environment Canada) shows the watersheds of the great lakes. However, take a look at this site from NOAA which shows almost every area around the lakes has received much greater than average rainfall. Furthermore, it has been cold and damp and the lakes themselves have been cold thus inhibiting evaporation. The lake levels (or more so the rate of rise of the lake levels) is the solution to a simple budget equation: The rate of rise (or fall) is water in (Rainfall and diversions from some watersheds in) minus water out (flow into Atlantic via the St Lawrence River plus water lost from diversions away from the lakes plus evaporation). Each of the terms on both sides of this equation involve very complex physics and geopolitics. For example did you know that far less water is diverted away from the lake in Chicago (to the Mississippi) than is added to the lake on the Canadian side? But there is a hard limit to how much extra flow can be added at each point (to the great relief of those living in Montreal). So with well above average rainfall, very wet soils (see this calculation from NOAA with runoff around the lakes at the 95+ percentile) limited evaporation an already modestly full lake system is now breaking records.