Printer Friendly

The geology and geomorphology of the Lake Michigan coast.


It is an often repeated statistic that Michigan's 2,288 miles of Great Lakes coasts give it the second longest coastline in the United States. No one in Michigan lives more than a few hours' drive from one of the Great Lakes, and few people in the state have not been affected by them in some way. They played key roles in the history and economic development of the state and continue to be one of its major recreational and aesthetic resources. The Great Lakes have also been the subject of much intellectual curiosity. A large amount of this focus has been on the geology and geomorphology of the lakes and their shores. In the state of Michigan this tradition goes back at least as far as the first State Geologist, Douglas Houghton (1809-1845), who included material on the Great Lakes in both the second and third annual reports of the State Geologist (Houghton 1928a; 1928b). Active scientific investigations of the Great Lakes have continued through today. One indication of this interest is the existence of the International Association of Great Lakes Research with a scientific journal, Journal of Great Lakes Research, dedicated to scientific studies of the Great Lakes.

In light of the long tradition of scientific studies of the Lakes, it appeared appropriate to hold a special session on the Geology and Geomorphology of the Lake Michigan coast in conjunction with the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 2003 annual meeting at Hope College, less than six miles from Lake Michigan. The session was held on Friday, March 21, 2003, and included 14 presentations by scientists representing 10 academic institutions, governmental agencies, and private companies from Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. It was followed on Saturday by a field trip to examine coastal dunes and lake front erosion along a stretch of coast ranging from just south of Holland to north of Muskegon. In doing so we were returning to an old tradition of the Michigan Academy, which in the 1930s and 1940s sponsored annual geologic field trips. Anecdotal evidence (Fowler 2004) suggests that these trips once played an important role in the life of the geologic community in the state, among other things helping to launch the Michigan Basin Geological Society.

This volume is a result of the special session. Nine of the thirteen authors of the six papers in this issue presented at either the Friday session or the Saturday field trip. The papers in this volume are all outgrowths of the papers they presented. Each of the papers touches on one or more of the major themes brought out in the special session.

Changes in water levels have always been of particular concern to people studying the coastal geomorphology of the Great Lakes. As early as 1839, Houghton published an account of lake level changes in the early 1800s, and in 1840, he published observations of former shorelines high above the modern coasts (Houghton 1928a; 1928b). By the early twentieth century, a lake level history for the Great Lakes and their proglacial ancestors had been worked out by a succession of geologists, culminating in the work of Leverett and Taylor (1915). This history has continued to be refined up until today. Probably the most significant recent work has been done by Todd Thompson of the Indiana Geological Survey and coworkers who have developed a detailed, high-resolution lake level history for Lakes Michigan and Superior during the last 4,500 years (Baedke and Thompson 2000; Johnston et al. in press). In their paper for this issue, Todd Thompson, Steve Baedke, and John Johnston ("Geomorphic Expression of Late Holocene Lake Levels and Paleowinds in the Upper Great Lakes") explore some of the consequences of this lake level history for coastal geomorphology. In this paper they are able to link major events evident in their hydrographs with patterns in the late Holocene landforms evident throughout the coasts of the western Great Lakes. Tim Fisher and Walter Loope ("Lake Level Variability within Silver Lake, Michigan: A Response to Fluctuations in Lake Levels of Lake Michigan") carry the story back further. Using Silver Lake as their example they show how water levels in smaller lakes marginal to the Great Lakes can reflect levels in the larger lakes. They then use information from Silver Lake to help constrain the timing of the over 80-meter rise in water level in Lake Michigan from the Chippewa low to the Nipissing I high.

Short-term fluctuations in water levels are an important preoccupation of people living near the lakes. Both low and high water levels bring their own sets of problems and, in Western Michigan at least, it rarely seems as if water levels are "just right." Foremost among the problems associated with high water levels is accelerated shoreline erosion. A great deal of effort has gone into studying this problem and exploring different remedies. This was the theme of several of the presentations at the special session. In this issue these studies are represented by the paper written by David Barnes, Michael Kovacich, and Santis Limesz ("Shore Protection and Coastal Change along the Lake Michigan Shore: Duck Lake, Orchard Beach State Park, and Onekama, Michigan"). In this paper they present a study of lakeshore erosion in several localities north of Muskegon during the high water levels of the 1990s and evaluate the effectiveness of an experimental shoreline-protection system installed to deal with this problem. One of these localities (Duck Lake) was a stop during the Saturday field trip.

In the minds of many people from Western Michigan, the coasts of the Great Lakes are associated with dunes. Collectively the dunes along the Great Lakes are one of the most impressive set of coastal dunes in the world, and they are particularly prominent along the southern and eastern margins of Lake Michigan. Scientifically these dunes are probably most famous for the biological studies of Cowles (1899) that helped establish the principle of ecological succession. However, they have also played an important role in the study of the geomorphology of coastal dunes especially in the classic studies by Olson (1958a, 1958b, 1958c) on the role of vegetation, topographic acceleration of wind, and water level in dune development. A recent revival of interest in Great Lakes coastal dunes began with the work of Walter Loope and coworkers (Anderton and Loope 1995; Loope and Arbogast 2000) on the role of lake level in dune growth and migration. In this issue two papers focus on the geomorphology of coastal dunes. Deanna van Dijk's paper ("Contemporary Geomorphic Change and Process on Lake Michigan Coastal Dunes: An Example from Hoffmaster State Park, Michigan") presents the results of a study of the contemporary development of dunes on or near the beach and in that way continues in the tradition of Olson. Her work emphasizes the effect of strong seasonal variations in weather on the development of coastal foredunes and blowouts in coastal dune ridges. The paper by Ed Hansen, Alan Arbogast, and Brian Yurk ("The History of Dune Growth and Migration along the Southeastern Shore of Lake Michigan: A Perspective from Green Mountain Beach") is concerned with the history of the dunes and emphasizes the large parabolic dunes and forested backdunes that occur somewhat further from the shore. They were able to reconstruct the history of dune growth and migration in a Lake Michigan coastal dune complex over the last 5,500 years. The areas described in both dune papers were also stops on the Saturday field trip.

There have been remarkably few published studies of the compositions of the sands that make up the beaches and dunes of Lake Michigan beyond the early study by Pettijohn (1931). This deficiency is partially made up in this issue by Bill Kean's paper ("Distribution of Magnetic Sands on Lake Michigan Beaches near Milwaukee, Wisconsin"). His study focuses on the concentrations of dark sand that are well known to people who visit the Lake Michigan coast but have been almost completely ignored in the scientific literature.

The six papers in this issue represent the continuation of a long tradition of research into the geology and geomorphology of the Great Lakes coasts. Collectively they offer a glimpse into the state of this research at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Hopefully they will become part of a tradition that will continue far into the future.


ANDERTON, J. B., AND W. L. LOOPE. 1995. Buried soils in a perched dunefield as indicators of Late Holocene lake level change in the Lake Superior basin. Quaternary Research 44:90-99.

BAEDKE, S. J., AND T. A. THOMPSON. 2000. A 4,700 year record of lake level and isostasy for Lake Michigan. Journal of Great Lakes Research 26:416-26.

COWLES, H. C. 1899. The ecological relations of the vegetation of the sand dunes of Lake Michigan. Botanical Gazette 27:95-117, 167-202, 281-308, 361-91. FOWLER, J. 2004. A short history of the Michigan Basin Geological Society. (accessed February 2, 2004).

HOUGHTON, D. [1839] 1928a. Second annual report of the State Geologist. In Geologic reports of Douglass Houghton: First State Geologist of Michigan 1837-1845, edited by G. N. Fuller, 167-337. Lansing: Michigan Historical Commission.

______. [1840] 1928b. Third annual report of the State Geologist. In Geologic reports of Douglass Houghton: First State Geologist of Michigan 1837-1845, edited by G. N. Fuller, 367-472. Michigan Historical Commission, Lansing.

JOHNSTON, J. W., S. J. BAEDEKE, R. K. BOOTH, T. A. THOMPSON, AND D. A. WILCOX. In press. Late Holocene lake-level variation in southeastern Lake Superior: Tahquamenon Bay, Michigan. Journal of Great Lakes Research.

LEVERETT, F., AND F. B. TAYLOR. 1915. The Pleistocene of Indiana and Michigan and The History of The Great Lakes. Monographs of the United States Geological Survey 53. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.

LOOPE, W. L., AND A. F. ARBOGAST. 2000. Dominance of a 150-year cycle of sand-supply change in Late Holocene dune-building along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Quaternary Res. 54:414-22.

OLSON, J. S. 1958a. Lake Michigan dune development 1: Wind velocity profiles. J. Geol. 66:254-63.

______. 1958b. Lake Michigan dune development 2: Plants as agents and tools in geomorphology. J Geol. 66:345-51.

______. 1958c. Lake Michigan dune development 3: Lake-level, beach, and dune oscillations. J Geol. 66:473-83.

PETTIJOHN, F. J. 1931. Petrography of the beach sands of southern Lake Michigan. J. Geol. 39:432-55.

EDWARD C. HANSEN, Hope College

Guest Editor
COPYRIGHT 2004 Michigan Academy of Science Arts & Letters
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hansen, Edward C.
Publication:Michigan Academician
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Previous Article:Note: the status of Emydoidea hutchisoni Holman, 1995 (Testudines:Emydidae).
Next Article:Geomorphic expression of Late Holocene lake levels and Paleowinds in the upper Great Lakes.

Related Articles
Geology of the Grand Calumet River region.
Geomorphic expression of Late Holocene lake levels and Paleowinds in the upper Great Lakes.
Contemporary geomorphic processes and change on Lake Michigan coastal dunes: an example from Hoffmaster State Park, Michigan.
J.W. Spencer (1851-1921): his life in Missouri and Georgia, and work on proglacial lakes.
The human impact on the natural environment; past, present, and future, 6th ed.
Essentials of physical geology, 5th ed.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |