Kiana Courtney, Jill Geiger, Joshua Gonzalez, Pouyan Hatami, Maya Peña-Lobel, Lena G. Reynolds, Lucas Stephens, and Tanmay Shukla

Environmental Law & Policy Center

Published date June 15, 2022

Rising Waters: Climate Change Impacts and Toxic Risks to Lake Michigan’s Shoreline Communities

Study key findings & significance

  • Rising lake levels, strong wind gusts and high waves are inching closer to flooding hazardous spots in northern Illinois, including coal, nuclear and Superfund sites.
  • Using government data, study authors simulated different flood levels and mapped the potential impacts.


“Lake Michigan is where we live, work and play. Climate change is forcing us to see another side of Lake Michigan.”

“Policymakers need to rethink the Lake Michigan shore’s built environment [and] make decisions based on today’s realities.”

Howard Learner, ELPC Executive Director


Climate change is fueling more extreme Lake Michigan Water levels, along with stronger winds and heavier storms. These conditions exacerbate erosion, beach loss, and damage along the shore. The region’s 200+ shoreline communities have already spent $878 million in the past two years repairing damages from extreme weather events, and estimates could reach over $2 billion in the next five years. Now is the time to prepare for the risks ahead.

Using elevation data prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Office for Coastal Management, the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) identified twelve areas where high lake levels and strong storms could impact industrial facilities, contaminated sites, and communities along Lake Michigan. These maps visualize four flood levels from 584 to 589 feet above sea level. This analysis cannot encompass the full scope of hazards along the shore, but the maps provide a useful starting point for risk assessment, spreading awareness, and prioritizing cleanup.

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