The Setting

There is significant variability in how the shoreline of Lake Michigan changes from day to day and year to year. That’s because sediments in the lake are always moving under the influence of winds and currents. The net movement of sand along the shore is known as littoral drift. Littoral drift has occurred along the shores of Lake Michigan for thousands of years. This movement replenishes sand and sediment supplies that create our coastal beaches and dunes. In addition to littoral drift, other processes like storm wave action, ice cover, and fluctuating lake levels, shape the shoreline through time. Furthermore, the construction of man-made infrastructure and shoreline protection structures interrupts the natural patterns of littoral drift, impacting how sediment is moving along the coast.

At 63-miles, Illinois’ Lake Michigan shoreline is small, but mighty. The city of Chicago sits on the lakefront, and urban development sprawls for miles. Illinois’ has the most densely populated coastal area in the Great Lakes with more than 9 million people residing in the greater Chicago area. The rich natural assets within the coast provide a foundation for the region’s bustling tourism and recreation industries. However, this area is also subject to the dynamic influence of Lake Michigan.

The Problem 

Until recently, our understanding of sediment movement and coastal change was limited to studies of historical aerial photographs and a disparate set of past research projects. In fact, Illinois had been without any beach and nearshore change monitoring since the late 1980’s. Without a data set recording these geologic processes, beach managers were limited in their knowledge about how to manage the shoreline. In 2013, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Management Program identified this data gap as a critical need. In 2016, scientists from the Great Lakes Coastal Geology Research Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Illinois State Geological Survey began measuring shoreline changes and conducting research on coastal processes. However, it was clear that to fully capture the variability of coastal change at a broad temporal and geographic scale, we needed more eyes monitoring the coast.

The Fix 

In 2017, the Coastal Management Program partnered with the Great Lakes Coastal Geology Research Group to initiate a citizen science beach monitoring project. The project, called Citizens Observing and Surveying the Shoreline or COASTS, is training volunteers to collect beach topography data using the Emery Rod profiling method. The data collected by citizen volunteers is an accurate and cost-effective approach to gathering large swaths of data to support coastal science and management.

What’s Next?

The data and information gathered as part of his research will aid land managers in understanding how and why our shoreline is changing, and what they can do to manage and maintain their respective portions of shoreline. Additionally, these data will provide scientists insight into how basin-wide coastal processes, such as fluctuating lake levels, are shaping the shoreline across large spatial scales.