August 26, 2019

Making Our Places More Like a Sponge

Since it’s World Water Week (Aug 25-30), let me be your source for fascinating facts, book recommendations, and a wet weather playlist!

I’ve been reading a deeply sobering book by Jeff Goodell titled The Water Will Come: Rising seas, Sinking cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. Most of the climate scientists Goodell spoke with in researching his book—geologists, hydrologists, glaciologists acknowledged that the estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of sea levels rising by 3 feet 2 inches by 2100 is far too low. Some of them think an estimate of a 6-foot rise is still too low.

Professor Jason Box is studying whether soot from massive wildfires—in California last year, in Brazil now—is being lofted into the jet stream and drifting onto ice in Greenland, darkening the snow and ice, accelerating melting, and contributing to sea-level rise.

Closer to home, the period from May 2018 to April 2019 was the wettest 12-month period on record for the continental United States. May 2019 was the wettest May ever in Cook County (with 8.25 inches of rain). We witnessed widespread flooding of farm fields throughout the Midwest with significantly diminished yields projected, barge traffic halted on the Mississippi due to high flows, and water levels in the Great Lakes reaching monthly highs in June and July. The water level in Lake Michigan has risen nearly six feet since January 2013—a full 15 inches since a year ago at this time—and is a mere eight inches below its all-time high. (By the way, that six foot increase in the water level of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron—they’re connected—equals 55.9 trillion gallons of water. Ooooof.)

People have asked me whether the projected increase in sea-level rise in the Atlantic Ocean will mean higher levels in the Great Lakes. The answer is “No,” and the illustration here shows why.

A product of Michigan Sea Grant. Notice how Lake Michigan and Lake Huron share the same surface and how high they sit above the Atlantic Ocean.

A product of Michigan Sea Grant. Notice how Lake Michigan and Lake Huron share the same surface and how high they sit above the Atlantic Ocean.

Lake Erie sits at about 568’ above sea level. Erie drains through the Niagara River into Lake Ontario, which is at 243’ above sea level. Any rise in sea level in the Atlantic would have to climb up Niagara Falls (167’ at Horseshoe Falls). A rise in the level of the Atlantic, while deeply problematic for cities, naval bases, people and wildlife along the east coast, will not cause a rise in the Great Lakes.

What we can expect to see—indeed are already experiencing—are warmer air temperatures for the Great Lakes region. These higher temps mean bigger storms dumping a lot of rain, as well as higher rates of evaporation from the lakes. Thus, we may expect to see large fluctuations in lake levels happening more frequently.

How can we become more like a sponge, less like a parking lot? That’s the question before us. According to a study by the US Geological Survey, 7.5 percent of the land area in Cook County is covered by parking lots. That comes to 71 square miles of impervious surface (and doesn’t include the additional surface area covered by roads, driveways, sidewalks, and buildings).

How do we peel back some of the concrete skin we’ve laid over the landscape and make our cities more spongey, more able to absorb rain and refill our groundwater aquifers? I have some ideas, but what are yours? Send them to me at No idea is too large, too small, or too wild. I’ll compile them and share them in a future newsletter. (Your creative ideas shouldn’t be stored in the cloud—let them rain down like a mighty river!)

Finally, for your end-of-summer listening pleasure, my staff and I wanted to share a modest wet weather playlist. If you think we’re all wet, share your own favorite songs!

Wet Weather Playlist

  • “Don’t Rain on My Parade” – Barbra Streisand (from the film Funny Girl)
  • “River of Happiness” – Dolly Parton
  • “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” – Otis Redding
  • “Stormy Weather” – Etta James
  • “Dreams” – Fleetwood Mac (it counts!)
  • “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” – B.J. Thomas
  • “Singin’ in the Rain” – Gene Kelly
  • “Waterfalls” – TLC
  • “Rainbow” – Kacey Musgraves
  • “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” – Clearance Coldwater Revival
  • “How Far I’ll Go” – Auli’i Cravalho (from the Disney film Moana)