Water levels in the Great Lakes can vary dramatically. Some years they’re low, others they’re high. And over decades, they can fluctuate by up to six feet.

“The lakes go down just long enough for people to forget that they’re going to come back up,” says Richard Norton, an urban planner at the University of Michigan.

Norton is part of the Resilient Great Lakes Coast program, which is helping coastal communities in Michigan plan for shifting lake levels.

He says when water levels in the Great Lakes are low for a long time, people might build too close to the shore.

Then when water levels rise again, their property could face flooding and erosion. And as climate change brings more intense storms, with heavy rain and strong waves, the problem could get worse.

Many landowners along the lakeshore have built sea walls to help protect their properties. But Norton says that these sea walls only buy limited time.

“The day someone puts in a sea wall is the day the lake starts to try and take it back out,” he says.

He says that in some locations, the best way to prevent property damage may be to limit building too close to the shore.

So Norton helps communities along Lake Michigan understand the risks and plan how to best manage their changing shorelines.

Reporting credit: Ethan Freedman/ChavoBart Digital Media