Strolling briskly along the breakwall in Two Harbors one recent morning, I noticed a thin sheen of ice over Agate Bay.
Overnight temperatures were near 0 degrees and the still, windless air made it possible. It was beautiful — shimmering black ice, thick enough that when someone before me threw rocks onto it, they bounced rather than breaking through.
It was not as solid as it looked, however; the sun was rising and with it a southwest breeze. The wind was blowing directly into the bay. By afternoon when I returned, all that lovely ice had broken up and was washing against the rocks in ungainly chunks.
This winter, two clear trends have emerged at our lakeshore. Water levels are very high, and there is very little ice. Ice charts for Lake Superior indicate 11% ice cover right now, mostly in bays.
One effect of low ice cover is that fish eggs, which need protection from the elements (wind and waves), are less likely to hatch successfully. Not good news for the fishermen on the breakwall, though the calms had brought in a few welcome cisco that morning.
Ice protects more than just fish eggs. Without ice, wind leads to waves. When you get high water levels and low ice levels, as we have in extremes this year, conditions emerge for that increasingly ominous word that coastline dwellers don’t like to hear — erosion.
Anyone who walks the shoreline regularly in Two Harbors might have noticed the frequency of less-than-clear water. Why the brown water? The answer: high water. Lake Superior waters are at record high levels for the month of February, less than a decade after record lows caused consternation of a different sort.
Dramatic fluctuations are now expected, as researchers and citizens adjust to the unpredictability and extremes of climate change. Historically, water levels would be expected to slowly drop — but currently no one is predicting what will happen in the next few years.
Meanwhile, high water and no ice mean that we get no relief from the erosion menace this winter. Just last week, a northeast breeze chopped up the waves and battered “the edge” — where bedrock gives way to vegetation along the shore.
The result: more brown water, more dirt ending up in the lake. There is a spot near the water plant in Two Harbors where I go to gauge the extent of wave damage — I found it one day during a fall gale when I saw waves washing up into the tansy (an invasive species along the shore), and almost onto the foot path. Foolishly (I was not wearing boots) I explored the path, only to get soaked with icy water when a wave washed over soil that had not been disturbed for decades, perhaps centuries.
That's when I grasped, via my own senses, the impact of rising water levels on Lake Superior, how big a difference every inch makes, and what this means for the ocean coasts where sea levels are rising.
What does this mean for us — our homes, our riverbeds, our shorelines, our marinas and harbors? Don’t stop with reading this column.
Derrick Passe, Project Coordinator for the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, will present the newest data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on lake levels and erosion at the next Community Partners event on climate change.
Community Partners' mission is to support the independence of people 60+ and their caregivers in the Two Harbors area, but these events are open to all. Come to the Two Harbors Community Center on Tuesday, Feb. 18, at 6 p.m. to learn, ask questions and take part in another important conversation.
Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.