Beaches along Chicago’s shoreline — predominantly on the city’s Far North Side — are beginning to drown from rising lake levels.
Seven years ago, Lake Michigan’s water levels were the lowest on record at 576.02 feet. For the past few months, lake levels have been increasing, averaging a height of 581.93 feet in July, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Since 2013’s record-low level, Lake Michigan has risen roughly six feet. To raise the lake level six feet, roughly 2.3 trillion gallons of water are required.
Warmer winters in the city recently has meant less lake water evaporating off the surface, according to Rick DiMaio, a Loyola environmental science professor and meteorologist. For Chicago’s lakefront, that means a rise in lake levels, leading to erosion and disappearing beaches.
Rogers Park’s Juneway Beach — located at the curve of Sheridan Road near Calvary Cemetery — is one of the beaches that has disappeared as a result of the increased lake levels. Infrastructure, including water retaining walls, around the now-inundated sandy patch has crumbled, leaving only the memory of a once-spacious beach.
Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus might be cause for concern, with the walkway along the Information Commons being a prime spot for waves to hit. DiMaio — a former meteorologist for United Airlines — said in his 10 years at Loyola, the university has done a good job fortifying the wall along the lake. Despite this, he said there could be a time when the walkway won’t be usable.
“I don’t think Loyola’s infrastructure is going to be damaged, but I would not be surprised if during the next really strong [current] where you get 30 to 40 miles per hour winds and six to eight-foot waves, that seawall area right outside the Information Commons, that whole walkway there will not be able to be used by students,” DiMaio said.
With the heated debate surrounding climate change — the burning of the Amazon Rainforest most recently making headlines — some might attribute the rising lake levels to climate change. However, DiMaio said he credits the changes to climate variability. While climate change refers to a change in statistics — including Earth’s temperature and carbon dioxide levels — climate variability indicates a change in weather and season patterns.
Weather patterns this past winter point to this climate variability. Despite some of the lowest recorded temperatures this past February during the polar vortex, DiMaio said overall this winter has been warmer and wetter than in the past. Coupled with the wet spring Chicago experienced this year, water drained into the lake instead of evaporating, according to DiMaio.
With warmer temperatures, less ice forms on Lake Michigan, adding to the problem, according to DiMaio.
“Lake ice acts as a natural buffer to waves of any sorts,” DiMaio said. “But now that you have record-high lake levels and the fact that a warming climate now keeps you from having natural barriers of lake ice, the impact of a higher lake level is now becoming more hazardous than in 1986 [when the levels were at their highest].”
The lake levels are expected to continue to fluctuate in the future, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief of public affairs Patrick Bray. With high water levels comes the potential for erosion, causing concerns among some residents.
“It’s a serious problem — something that needs to be addressed for public safety, for kids swimming in the water, as well as to preserve our beach fronts,” said Robert Armband, a Rogers Park resident. “We need to do something about it now.”
Armband, 63, has been a resident of Rogers Park for more than two decades. Having owned multiple properties in the area, Armband said he’s noticed the erosion for years. He said his building on Eastlake Terrace — parallel to Sheridan Road at the north end of Rogers Park — once had a wall to retain water but it has now crumbled into the lake.
For short-term solutions, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can bring sandbags and plastic tarps to help alleviate some of the flooding along the shoreline, according to Michelle Dojutrek, chief of emergency management at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The federal agency responds to emergency declarations from its commander or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Bray said they will be heading up to Rogers Park in coming days with the Chicago Park District to assess the area and decide how to proceed.
The 49th Ward, which covers Rogers Park and part of Loyola’s campus, is also banding with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Park District to tackle the effects of the rising lake levels. Alderwoman Maria Hadden said her office is concerned with what’s happening beyond the visible damage.
“We’re seeing those concrete structures [put in place by the Park District] cracking, crumbling and falling into the lake as erosion has [occurred] as the lake levels have continued to rise,” Hadden said. “One of the biggest concerns that my office has is about the erosion that we don’t see. So the lake levels are rising and eroding the ground, what are the impacts on infrastructure that we can’t see?”
In a combined effort with other city organizations, the Chicago Park District is undertaking a comprehensive study that will analyze all 18 miles of Chicago’s shoreline, in order to compile a list of short-term and long-term projects to identify immediate areas for concern and plan funding accordingly, according to Sarah White, the lakefront planning coordinator at the Chicago Park District.
“It’s a good example of why we as a city need to more urgently address planning infrastructure and forward thinking about what we need to become, and what changes we need to make in order to be prepared in a city that’s sustainable and livable,” Hadden said.