Warming winters are putting North Shore property owners on edge — literally

Shoreline erosion at cabins near Grand Marais in northeastern Minnesota.
Shoreline erosion at cabins near Grand Marais in northeastern Minnesota. Wetter, warmer weather brought about by climate change appears to be hastening lakeshore erosion, and it’s putting some cabins precariously close to the water’s edge.
Paul Huttner | MPR News

One of the cabins that Charlie Walters and his wife own near Grand Marais, Minn., is perched just a few feet away from a 15-foot drop into the waves of Lake Superior.

It hasn’t always been this way. Waves have slowly eroded the bluff.

“The previous year, it was only a couple of inches, but this last season it really picked up pace,” Walters said. “This last year, it’s been about a foot.”

Walters’ property isn’t an anomaly. Climate change appears to be speeding up the erosion process.

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Heavier precipitation in the Lake Superior watershed has raised water levels by 10 to 12 inches, said Jay Austin, a professor with the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth. And warmer winters have meant less lake ice is forming to keep the higher waves at bay during the winter.

“The long-term trend is, indeed, toward less ice,” Austin said.

Just two or three degrees Fahrenheit can be the difference between substantial ice and none at all, he said. And since 1970, Minnesota’s average winter temperature has warmed 6 degrees.

“The system is extremely sensitive to these relatively small shifts in winter climate conditions,” Austin said.

Walters in Grand Marais is seeing the costs of that firsthand. He’s spent the summer getting estimates for saving his cabin on the cliff, which has been in his wife’s family since 1932.

So far, he’s looking at a $40,000 bill to reinforce the bluff. Or he can move the cabin.

Either way, “it’s a pretty big dent,” Walters said.

MPR News chief meteorologist and Climate Cast host Paul Huttner spent some time at the cabin. You can hear more by hitting play on the audio player above.