Project Seeks Photos of Lake Michigan Coastal Dunes

Tom Zimnicki
Michigan Environmental Council
June 10, 2019
dunes holland

To some people, a sand dune conjures up an image of an exotic place somewhere far, far away. But residents in the Great Lakes basin don't have to travel far with the world's largest body of freshwater coastal dunes in their backyard. 

These unique landmarks began forming around 5,000 years ago and have evolved in complex ways since that time. While scientists generally understand the overall chronology of dune formation, there is a continued need to better understand how the dunes have changed over time. And that’s where you can help.

In 2017, a group of researchers from the Michigan Environmental Council, Heart of the Lakes, West Michigan Environmental Action Council and Michigan State University asked people to complete a #HowYouDune Survey to learn how people interact with and perceive Michigan dunes. Now researchers are calling on people to become citizen scientists and help document the changing nature of Lake Michigan’s coastal dunes.

dunes holland
Dunes can be in seen the background of this April 2019 photo of Ottawa Beach in Holland, Michigan. Credit: Kevin McKeehan/MSU

There are dunes in areas throughout the Great Lakes, in Canada and the United States, such as Wasaga Beach on Lake Huron in Ontario. Most coastal dunes in the region are located in Michigan, with 275,000 acres on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines. There are smaller areas on Lake Michigan in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. One of the largest stretches of dunes outside of Michigan is a 17-mile stretch on eastern Lake Ontario.

The goal of the Lake Michigan project is to build an archive of historic and repeat coastal sand dune photographs at many points along the lake. This database will allow researchers to better understand and predict the morphology, movement and characteristics of dunes.

“Along with intrinsic and recreational value, dunes provide a buffering effect to shoreline erosion,” says Alan Arbogast, chair of the Michigan State University Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences. “We see areas fronted by coastal dunes showing less effects of shoreline erosion over time compared to non-dune areas. Dunes also provide excellent habitat to endangered plant communities like Pitcher’s Thistle.”  

Repeat photography is commonly used to track changes in desert landscapes in the American west as well as glacial retreat in places like Glacier National Park. The coastal dunes of Lake Michigan provide an excellent opportunity to use repeat photography to evaluate landscape changes.

The dunes are an ideal research location because: the shoreline is relatively open and accessible, coastal dunes are dynamic and change easily, and vegetation coverage on dunes reflects relative dune stability at any given time.

dunes van buren
Left, taken in Van Buren State Park in 1997, and right, taken at the same site in 2014. Credit: Alan Arbogast/MSU

Above, note the sequence of exposed organic (dark) layers in the photo on the left, which represents prehistoric periods of stability and soil formation. That’s in contrast to the photo on the right, with expanded vegetation. This photographic evidence indicates the dune is in the process of stabilizing due to expanded plant cover and demonstrates the sensitivity of this landscape.

Collecting historic and repeat photography offers unique information to build our understanding of the dunes and provides crucial information for long-term preservation, conservation and management activities within coastal areas. To learn more, visit

By sharing their historic photographs of the dunes, participants in this project will become citizen scientists and help contribute to the understanding of these unique and complex landmarks. This is a great opportunity to dust off those old photo albums with your parents or grandparents and see how Lake Michigan’s coastal dunes have been enjoyed for generations.

Tom Zimnicki
Michigan Environmental Council

Tom Zimnicki is the agriculture policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. His work broadly focuses on the intersection of agriculture, land use and water quality.