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June 9, 2023

The story of Lake Michigan's coastal dune evolution

Great Lakes dune expert Alan Arbogast and colleagues shed new light on the region's dune formation

If you want to know how awe-inspiring the dunes of the Great Lakes region are, ask any Midwesterner about the first time they visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. If you want to understand how and when those dynamic dunes evolved, ask Alan Arbogast — professor, coastal geomorphologist and former chair of the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University.

In fact, you need look no further than Arbogast's official email address at MSU to get the hint that he is the Great Lakes dune guy. Email addresses for most faculty members consist of some combination of their first and last names, sometimes with a few numbers thrown in, but Arbogast's is simply "" So, let's just say that after spending the last 30-plus years studying coastal dune evolution, especially the formation of those along the shores of Lake Michigan, Arbogast can rightly be called the guru of Great Lakes coastal dunes.

Now in a new publication appearing in Quaternary Science Reviews, one that he's affectionately dubbed his magnum opus about Michigan's dunes, Arbogast and his collaborators, Bill Lovis (archaeologist and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology), Kevin McKeehan (former Ph.D. student), and the late Bill Monaghan (geoarchaeologist formerly at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis), have set out to comprehensively assess the evolution of dunes along Lake Michigan, and the role lake level fluctuations and climate have played in this 5,500-year history. "Research has been conducted on the Great Lakes dunes system for more than 100 years. We're not exactly sure how it happened, but it just kind of became accepted without any real testing that the dunes formed more or less during one interval of time, specifically during a period of high lake levels known as Nipissing high stand about 5,000 years ago," said Arbogast. "At first glance, that kind of made sense. Lake levels were about 15 feet higher than they are now, and people just thought that when the lake levels eventually dropped, there was a bunch of sand left all over, and the dunes just kind of blew up from that. But that just isn't the case."

To read the full story, visit the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences website.

By: Diane Huhn

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