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Jan. 24, 2024

Uncovering new insights into shoreline impacts of Great Lakes ice

Researchers are using drones, phones and a cryogenic wave tank to learn more about freshwater coasts

As the calendar marks the start of a new year, most Great Lakes residents reluctantly bid a temporary farewell to the beach months ago, eagerly awaiting the return of sunny skies and warmer temperatures in the spring. And while Ethan Theuerkauf, an assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University, certainly enjoys visiting the shores of the Great Lakes on a lovely summer day, he is welcoming the return of our recent cold weather to continue his research on how lake ice impacts sediment transport and erosion along these freshwater coastal shorelines.

As a coastal geomorphologist, when Theuerkauf arrived at the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences in 2019, he was excited to lead the College of Social Science’s Coastlines and People Thematic Area and add new revelations to the long legacy of Great Lakes coastal research at MSU and other Midwest universities. But he quickly learned that although studies about dune formation, shoreline erosion and other coastal processes conducted during more temperate months of the year lined the proverbial bookshelves of Great Lakes research, the section on the impacts of nearshore lake ice was pretty much non-existent except for a small handful of studies from the 1970s and 1980s.

Much of this past research essentially concluded that ice serves as a protection mechanism for Great Lakes shorelines. For the last 30 years or so, the general belief was that if ice forms along the shoreline during winter, the shoreline is protected. If ice is not present, more erosion can take place due to wave action. “Turns out it’s far more complicated than that,” explained Theuerkauf. “Ice doesn’t just form and then melt away. It forms and then goes through periods of decay and reformation. Then you have wave action on top of all that. So there are a lot of factors going on that work together to determine what kind of impact ice might have on the shore.”

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

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