What if (Inland) Sea Levels are Falling...Then Rising...Then Falling…? Climate Change and Shoreland Management on the Laurentian Great Lakes

  • Richard K. Norton University of Michigan
  • Lorelle A. Meadows University of Michigan
  • Guy A. Meadows Michigan Technological University
Keywords: Shoreland Management, Climate Change, Sea Level Rise


The water levels of the Laurentian Great Lakes are today at historically low levels, probably as a result of global climate change, but those water levels will almost certainly climb again as they always have in an ongoing pattern of seasonal, annual, and decadal fluctuations. Coupled with physical dynamics that are unique to the Great Lakes system, there are good reasons to believe that Great Lakes shorelines will continue to shift lakeward and landward dramatically over time, perhaps more so because of climate change. This pattern of shifting shores implicates legal doctrines that attempt to balance public interests and private property rights at the shore, complicating the Great Lakes state’s efforts to effectively manage their Great Lakes shorelands. This paper describes Great Lakes shoreline dynamics and the application of the Public Trust Doctrine to those shorelines. It concludes by discussing the challenges that the Great Lakes states face especially in marking ordinary high water on their shores given global climate change.


Angel, J.R. and K.E. Kunkel (2010) The response of Great Lakes water levels to future climate scenarios with an emphasis on Lake Michigan-Huron. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 36: 51–58.

Bennett, T., Meadows, L. A., Meadows, G. A., Caufield, B. and Sansumeren, H.. (1999) Nearshore profile change and its impact on rates of shoreline recession. American Society of Civil Engineers (June 1999), Long Island, NY.

Dorr, J. A., and Eschman, D. F. (1970) Geology of the Great Lakes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Frey, B. C., and Mutz, A. (2007) The public trust in surface waterways and submerged lands of the Great Lakes States. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, 40:907-993.

International Joint Commission (IJC), 2012, Lake Superior Regulation: Addressing Uncertainty in Upper Great Lakes Water Levels: The International Upper Great Lakes Study, Final Report, Washington, DC.

International Great Lakes Datum (IGLD) (1985) http://www.ngs.noaa.gov/TOOLS/IGLD85/igld85.shtml

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. An Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva: IPCC.

Komar, P. D. (1997) Beach Processes and Sedimentation. 2nd edition. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Meadows, G. A., Meadows, L. A., Wood, W. L., Hubertz, J. M. and Perlin, M. (1997) The relationship between Great Lakes water levels, wave energies and shoreline damage. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 78 (4):675-683.

Mortimer, C. H. (1987) Fifty years of physical investigations and related limnological studies on Lake Erie, 1928-1977. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 13:407-435.

Norton, R. K., Meadows, L.A. and Meadows, G.A.. (2011) Drawing lines in law books and on sandy beaches: Marking ordinary high water on Michigan’s Great Lakes shorelines under the public trust doctrine. Coastal Management, 39(2):133-157.

Rovey, C. W. I., and M. K. Borucki. 1994. Bluff evolution and long-term recession rates, southwestern Lake Michigan. Environmental Geology 23:256-263.

Slade, D.C., Kehoe, R.K., & Stahl, J.K. (1997) Putting the Public Trust to Work (2nd ed). Washington, D.C.: Coastal States Organization.

Titus, J. G. (1998) Rising seas, coastal erosion, and the Takings Clause: How to save wetlands and beaches without hurting property owners. Maryland Law Review, 57:1279-1399.