As Great Lakes rise, Michigan residents face giant climatological test

For Nikki and Kim Grodus, had the water risen a few more inches, it would be at their home's first floor. 

But already feet above the average height, that wasn't supposed to be something the couple should need to be concerned about after moving in their new house in 2018.

"I looked at these windows, and you can't see now see the edge that the water was creeping up on it, and I asked neighbors 'gosh, is it gonna get any higher cause it'll be coming in those windows' and they said 'no, it's five feet higher than it's ever been, so you should be fine," said Nikki.

Nikki's house doesn't have the benefit of a sea wall. Their home's unusual foundation was built with only the basement wall protecting them against the rising tides of the canal they now live on. After the high waters St. Clair Shores and other cities experienced in 2019, Nikki built up sandbags and layered protective coats on her home to buffer them from water. 

But it wasn't enough.

"I thought the water was running in the shower downstairs. I thought somebody had left the water on," she said. "It was pouring in here, cascading down this and pouring down all along the floor over to the sump pump."

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"The real threat is when we get above this, if it goes that seven to 10 inches higher, it's now going to be where the wood is joined," she added. "My fear is when it goes that's just gonna come in."

That fear, coupled with the question 'will this ever end?' are sentiments being raised by residents and city managers across the state. 

"That's the big unknown. With everything going on climate-wise, globally, is this the new normal?" asked Climatologist Richard Rood. "Is this the start of what's ultimately gonna be the new normal?"

Rood said there's no evidence to support the Earth's continual warming is going to slow down anytime soon. Since the start of the industrial revolution, countries have been pumping an excess of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Fossil fuel sources like coal, oil, and natural gas now cover the Earth like a blanket, holding heat close to the surface.

 With so much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, the planet has experienced its warmest years ever recorded in the last decade.

"Last year has settled in as the second warmest in the historical record, which then would make the last five years all in the top five of the record warmest," Rood said. "And if you look all the way back to the year 2,000, only one year is not in that record."

With new records being neared or eclipsed every year, Rood has drawn a brooding conclusion: "In my evaluation right now, the climate change is irreversible."

RELATED: Great Lakes water levels could be even higher in 2020

"When I say that, (I mean) we're not going to reverse it in our lifetime, your children's lifetime, your grandchildren's lifetime," he added.

Those changes have transferred to an overabundance of precipitation.

"What we've seen in the last five years is higher precipitation rates," said Lauren Fry with the Army Corps of Engineers. "The last 60 months, ending in December of 2019, were the wettest 60 months on record."

Fry, who also works with NOAA, said since the Great Lakes bottomed out at historic low levels of water, it's been nonstop precipitation.

"Water levels are high primarily because mother nature has thrown a lot of water at us," she said. "The primary drivers of water levels in the Great Lakes is precipitation that falls directly on top of the lakes, runoff that's coming off of the land into the lakes, and evaporation," she said.

RELATED: Michigan forming 'High Water Action Team' to aid residents as Great Lakes levels rise

Granted, the region has seen historic lows in ice cover. That may be good news, but forecasts for the next six months aren't.

"Our best estimate forecast is above record highs for the entire period," Fry said. 

Even if the region were to experience its driest period ever on record, water levels would still exceed average heights. However, the Army Corps is estimating water levels to not only exceed average heights but break monthly highs in multiple Great Lakes.

That's not news Nikki or any other homeowners on the shore want to hear.

"The fear is if you wanna live on the canal, if it does go 10 inches higher, it's going to threaten not just my house, but it's going to threaten the seawalls all around me cause they all are approved to the same height," she said.

"So if it comes in over my wall, it's coming in over theirs too."