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Are Chicago Buildings Sinking Into Lake Michigan?


By Greg Zimmerman Emergency Preparedness
chicago skyline

There are certain inherent dangers of building very tall buildings on what used to be swampland. But for several hundred years, Chicago has managed to thrive as a world-class lake-side city. 

But now, according to a stunning graphical piece in the New York Times, it appears that due to climate change and a number of other factors, some of Chicago’s downtown buildings may be in danger of slowly sinking into Lake Michigan. The piece shows how increasingly ferocious storms are causing Lake Michigan’s water level to fluctuate from an historic low level in 2013 to an historic high level in 2020. This dramatic swing has meant that “the historic shoreline is starting to buck.”

Chicago buildings have used a number of innovative engineering solutions over the years to anchor them to the tenuous ground. (The NY piece includes a fascinating history of how Chicago built a canal and then basically built itself up out of the swamp by raising buildings, and putting sewers on top of roads, and then more roads on top of the sewers.) But as the shoreline erodes, concern is growing that the techniques used to raise buildings out of the swampy ground may not be enough to protect the buildings from slowly sinking.

Last May, the city got historic rainfalls, knocking out power to the Willis Tower due to flooding. That storm may be a harbinger of things to come in Chicago. “Flooding isn’t new in Chicago. But this time was different: Lake Michigan wasn’t at the ready to function as an oversized emergency retention pond,” says the article. 

As these floods continue to get worse, the shoreline continues to erode, and Lake Michigan’s levels fluctuate, Chicago will need to develop a better solution, or risk becoming a victim of climate change.  

This post was submitted by Greg Zimmerman, deputy editor, Facility Market.

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