The Great Lakes boasts some of the most beautiful scenery in all of North America. It’s home to 3,300 miles of shoreline and teems with life supported by diverse ecosystems. However, the Great Lakes shoreline is facing devastating erosion that’s presenting social, environmental, and economic impacts that will surely be felt for years. While we can’t stop coastal erosion on Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior completely, we can know its causes and take steps to reduce its effects for this generation and the next.
Below you will find tips to minimized shoreline erosion, options to lower your risk of home damage if you are experiencing shoreline erosion, and what to do if you live on Lake Michigan, Huron, or Superior or one of the tributaries and need t0 move your home back from the crumbling shoreline.
What is Shoreline Erosion
At its simplest, erosion is the wearing away of a shoreline due to forces—usually water and wind—moving sand or soil from one area to another. More specifically (and this probably goes without saying), shoreline erosion occurs at the shore, like on the shores of the Great Lakes or the waterways leading into the lakes. The shorelines of the Great Lakes are constantly changing due to waves, currents, and tides. Shoreline erosion is natural, but in the recent past, communities, homes, and business built on the shores of the Great Lakes are experiencing erosion at increased and alarming rates. And along with this erosion comes devastating consequences.
What Causes Shoreline Erosion
As mentioned above, shoreline erosion, in some sense, is a very natural process. Rock, sand, and sediment is moved from place to place due to weather patterns and the way the wind and water react to those patterns.
However, the shoreline erosion at the Great Lakes has become increasingly volatile over the last few years. Now, many waterside residents living on the lakes are dealing with a diminishing shoreline. And at this point, the cause doesn’t seem to be typical weather patterns, but instead, climate change is causing major shifts in the landscape of the Great Lakes region.
The water levels of the Great Lakes are at all-time highs. Due to Earth’s changing climate and warmer temperatures, ice is melting, and water levels are rising. Residents and visitors to the region alike can see clearly that the lakes’ water is unusually high, lapping over walls and onto walking and biking paths. Waves that undercut bluffs are often the cause of landslides, an increasingly common event around the Great Lakes’ shores.
When the waters are calm, shoreline erosion might not seem like an imminent threat, even with the record-breaking water levels. But, when there’s a storm, the lakes’ waves crash onto the shoreline with great force, chipping away at the land bit by bit. More and more, property owners on the lakes are seeing their yards eaten away by the high, rough waters. And as the land disappears, their homes have less and less protection from the water itself. As the shoreline erodes, foundations become water damaged and crumble or fall directly into the lakes themselves.
As the global climate changes and water levels rise in the Great Lakes, property owners need to find solutions to keep their homes intact and to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
What are High-Risk Erosion Areas?
While the Great Lakes region in general is experiencing increased rates of erosion, some areas are being hammered harder than others. These swaths of land that are being most rapidly chipped away are referred to as high-risk erosion areas (HREAs). Those that average one foot of recession per year (or more) over the last 15 years are classified as a high-risk erosion area. In some areas around the Great Lakes, the rate of bluff retreat is up to seven feet per year.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy determines which parts of the shoreline are HREAs. By comparing current and historical aerial photography, the department measures the shorelines, making a determination of an area’s status through those findings. They’ve published a map dictating the current HREAs in the United States. The department has determined that approximately 250 miles of shoreline along Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Huron are rapidly eroding and are posing a serious threat to existing structures.
Environmental Impacts of Coastal Erosion
The economic and social impacts of coastal erosion are almost too great to number. Homes and buildings are collapsing more and more frequently as the land gives way to the high, crashing waters of the lakes. And more important than the economic impact is the safety hazard that the shoreline erosion presents to residents and visitors.
But Mother Nature suffers from coastal erosion as well, especially when it’s exacerbated by erratic weather patterns due to climate change.
Little by little, the loss of land from the shoreline means an eventual loss of natural habitats and ecosystems for animals native to the Great Lake Region. Each lost inch of soil is the loss of the makings of a complex ecosystem upon which we all depend.
As land is pulled into the Great Lakes, pollutants, garbage, and other debris have been pulled in with it. This increases water contamination levels, causing declines in both plant and animal life that once thrived in the Great Lakes. Additionally, all of this new sediment in the water reduces visibility, a death sentence for fish and other animals who rely on sight to catch their prey.
With the increase of shoreline erosion has come the increase of man-made prevention methods. Individuals and agencies alike are working to decrease the levels of erosion around the Great Lakes region. But as more and more methods are implemented to save both the shoreline and the homes and structures built upon it, more natural resources are being used to do so. As homes have to be relocated inland, trees, vegetation, and animals are either destroyed or lose their habitat. Man-made seawalls pose a specific threat to species like turtles. The seawalls prevent the animals from being able to come ashore to lay eggs, resulting in a decrease in their populations. Coastal erosion is bad for the lakes, the land, and everyone and everything that inhabits them.
7 Tips to Minimize Shoreline Erosion
Erosion is a fact of life for much of the Great Lakes shoreline. But there are steps you can take to do your part to minimize erosion. Here are 7 simple tips to help you get started:
Leave Vegetation Alone
If you’ve got vegetation on your property, leave it alone! Allow shoreline vegetation to remain in as natural a state as possible. Don’t disturb native plants.
If you must mow your yard, do so sparingly. Michigan State University Extension recommends mowing no more than two times per season. To preserve the natural ecosystems on your property, they also suggest leaving vegetation at a height of 20 inches or higher.
Create Narrow Paths to Access Water
One of the best parts of living on the lakes is having front-door access to the water. When you’re creating a path from your home to the shore, keep it as narrow as possible. The pathway should be made of sand, not hard surfaces like concrete or stone, to preserve the natural habitat.
Choose Seawall Alternatives
Seawalls are very common around the lakes, but they can cause more harm than good. When thinking through how to protect your property—and the property of your neighbors—consider alternatives to traditional steel or stone seawalls.
When Rebuilding, Keep the Original Foundation
The less invasive and disruptive you can be of the land around the shoreline, the better. That’s not to say that you’re forbidden from making improvements to your home or other structures on your property. However, one way to reduce damage to the natural land near the coast is to preserve your home’s original foundation. If you’re rebuilding or doing serious renovation, do everything you can to preserve the slab. This might feel more costly or inconvenient on the front end, but this action can go a long way in reducing soil erosion.
Build New Homes Inland
But if rebuilding on an old slab isn’t an option for whatever reason, take new construction inland. The farther away from the consistently eroding shore, the better—not just for the environment, but for your home’s structural integrity as well!
Keep Land or Property as Natural as Possible
Pretend there’s a giant “Do Not Disturb” sign across the coasts of the Great Lakes. One reason that the water levels are so high as of late is due to mankind’s negative impact on the environment. In order to minimize further erosion, we need to work to keep this land as natural as possible. Consider leaving your property “raw.” In other words, let the grass grow, don’t install landscaping, don’t pour concrete unless necessary, etc.
Options if Your Home is in a High-Risk Area
In an ideal world, your home or property wouldn’t be in a high-risk erosion area. But if you do fall into that category, you still have options to build, renovate, and thrive on the shores of the beautiful Great Lakes.
Get a Permit
If you live in a HREA, you’ll need a permit for construction depending on the project. If you’re building a house, addition, garage, outbuilding, or other structure; installing or upgrading a septic system or commercial building; or are completing reconstruction or restoration of a pre-existing home, you’ll need to secure a permit. You can contact the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy if you have permitting questions.
Maintain the Existing Vegetation
Nature has a way of fending for itself, even in the direst situations. The natural vegetation on your coastal property is a natural erosion deterrent. The more vegetation on your land, the more secure the soil, and the less likely it will succumb to erosion. If you do have to cut down trees, leave the stumps and roots. These will continue to hold soil in place.
Plant Native Vegetation
Plant, plant, plant. Trees, shrubs, and other plants native to this region are the perfect addition to your property to keep it looking beautiful and out of the water!
Relocate Your Home
This may be your only option if you live along a high risk area along one of the great lakes or a waterway. The good news is that DeVooght house lifters can help you get your house moved back from the shoreline and even lifted out of harms way.
One of the most helpful ways to cope with living in a HREA is to address the reality of your situation. The shorelines of the Great Lakes are eroding at lightning speeds. Even with your very best efforts, the changing climate has a huge effect on the rising waters and coastal erosion we’re seeing at the Great Lakes. Understand that erosion is a part of your life as a property owner there. Build smartly and take small steps—like the ones listed above—to keep our shorelines stable.
In sum, shoreline erosion in and around the Great Lakes is a severe problem. But, all hope is not lost. Thanks to an increased awareness of our role in climate change and a renewed interest in caring for these precious ecosystems and lands, we have the opportunity to preserve the shores of the Great Lakes for years to com