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In Chicago, climate change makes it harder to effectively protect the lakefront

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The first major storm this year pounded the lakefront

A large wave crashes along the lakefront trail. There are tall buildings in the distance. Getty Images

In the fall, Chicago officials were concerned about reaching record-high levels of Lake Michigan. The rising lake had swallowed up two Chicago beaches which prompted the installation of a handful of concrete barriers to protect Lake Shore Drive and lakefront parks from flooding and crashing waves.

After the first major storm this year, which saw waves as high 23 feet, there was significant damage and flooding on the lakefront. The new pedestrian and bike trail was torn up into large chunks of broken pavement. The parks and underpasses were flooded. More than 5,000 homes and businesses lost power. Plus, the water creeped up to the front yards of lakefront bungalows and condo buildings.

While it’s normal for the lakefront levels to fluctuate, Lake Michigan has been at near-record highs for the past six months. Lake Michigan is up six feet since 2013 and rose 15 inches over 2019 alone, according to the National Weather Service. The last time the lake was near this level was 1986.

What’s concerning is the quick rebound from historically low water levels. If you’re wondering how climate change will affect Chicago, this is just one example. Peter Annin, author of Great Lakes Water Wars, told NPR that more intense storms and bigger waves will be the new normal.

“What we are seeing with climate change now in the Great Lakes region is more rocking and rolling in water levels—higher highs and lower lows and a much more rapid transition between the highs and lows,” Annin said. “And that’s what’s driving people crazy as they try to interface with the Great Lakes, especially Lake Michigan.”

As homeowners saw this past weekend, the effects of climate change are right on their front doorstep. Flooding, surging lake levels, extreme heat and cold weather can have a serious impact on property. Fully protecting the lakefront could cost billions, too.

Crews are working to clean up the lakefront as needed, according to the Park District. The trail is officially open, the department said, even with missing asphalt south of Fullerton Avenue and between Ohio Street and Oak Street. Portions of the trail near 43rd and 47th streets were also reported as damaged.

The city is currently assessing how the powerful storm has affected the construction of the Navy Pier Flyover. Photos taken after the storm show large pieces of asphalt covering the section that was constructed during the first phase near Ohio Street beach.

Workers are also evaluating how the concrete barriers held up against the intense weather. They were installed along stretches of the North and South sides. At Howard beach, large rocks that were added at the end of December are now mostly eroded after the storm.

In September, the city said it had a plan to address flooding from Lake Michigan along the entire lakefront trail from Ardmore Avenue to 71st Street. At that time, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said:

“We know that this threat isn’t new to our city,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement at the time. “In fact, high lake levels have been an ongoing issue that historically have caused serious damage to our lakefront infrastructure and beaches while also posing a continuous threat to pedestrian and traffic safety.”