Summit focuses science agenda for Earth’s largest freshwater bodies

Illinois' 63 miles of coastline is one of the nation's most valuable, a pivotal cog in the economic and transportation health of the nation's third largest population center.

Science of the Great Lakes made a major step forward this month when scientists of many disciplines, jurisdictions, and affiliations came together to plan the future of their work with unified purpose.

About 140 geologists, biologists, engineers, and other experts participated in the first Great Lakes Coastal Mapping Summit on April 4-6 in Chicago. Included were local, state, and federal officials, academic researchers, private industry representatives, coastal land managers, and others responsible for community resilience and livability, extreme weather events, as well as safe, efficient, and environmentally sound navigation.

The collaboration yielded consensus that coastal mapping in the Great Lakes should focus on regional studies that are aimed at gathering the elevation, bathymetric, geological, ecological, and physical process data required to understand the dynamic changes taking place along the Great Lakes coasts. These mapping data should be standardized to be useful to researchers of all disciplines across the Great Lakes states and Canada, according to summit participants’ recommendations. In addition, they called for coordination of identification, preservation, and access to the region’s data.

helicopter towing scientific array

 VIDEO LINK: During the summit ISGS was conducting the first mapping project on the coast in decades using a game-changing tool - helicopter-borne electromagnetic instruments that can 'see' deep beneath the water.

“If that sounds simple, it is not,” said Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) chief scientist Steve Brown. “The consensus means that every project in every field is designed with an eye toward producing data that can be used and re-used by others. This approach just makes sense.  It reduces costs and redundancy, and results in better outcomes.” ISGS is a division of the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

With historically limited funding available for mapping and other research on the nation’s coastlines, the scientists gathered under a 2009 law mandating that all work funded by state and federal agencies coordinate research priorities through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping (IOCM) Program. Regional summits of stakeholder/experts, like this summit in Chicago, are the mechanism for prioritizing the work.

Brown was one of the lead organizers of the Great Lakes Coastal Mapping Summit, which was co-hosted by ISGS and held at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District office.  By taking this initiative, he said "the state scientists and managers we are able to be part of the discussion. We all have a hand in shaping the path forward with coastal mapping."

“Illinois' 63 miles of coastline is one of the nation's most valuable, a pivotal cog in the economic and transportation health of the nation's third largest population center,” according to ISGS director Richard Berg. “Yet it has been more than two decades since there has been a major scientific study of Illinois’ Lake Michigan coast.”

"It is a challenging place to work, with a multitude of public and private interests" according to ISGS coastal geologist Ethan Theuerkauf, who is reinvigorating a geologic research program along the Illinois coast. "Decades of constructing engineered shoreline protection have altered the natural processes shaping the coastline. You have to think outside of the box when designing research studies in order to capture geologic processes along such a modified coast," he added.

A good example of such scientific collaboration is the recently completed Helicopter Time-Domain Electro Magnetic (HTEM) mapping of the entire Illinois coastline. This precise snapshot, which looks several hundred feet deep  to show the layers of rock, sand, and clay underneath Lake Michigan, was collected by the ISGS and will provide critical baseline data to guide future research. PRI has already aligned its expertise in a Coastal Science Initiative to inform its own activities and to assist the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Management Program.

Physical mapping of the area at and beneath the surface of the beach and the lake bottom is a critical first step to scientific understanding of coastal change, yet most available funding has gone to beach replenishment, habitat restoration, and similar management needs, Berg said.

Up-to-date mapping of America’s coastlines and the 200-mile U.S. territorial ocean shelf yields many benefits for the national economy, national security, public health, resource management. 2009’s Ocean and Coastal Mapping Integration Act codified IOCM’s effort to avoid duplication among multiple federal agencies, states, industries, and universities that all have an interest in advancing coastal and lake bottom mapping.

Just on the state level, mapping needs could take a decade or more to prioritize and fund. The summit allowed a diverse group to present the needs and opportunities of science to reconcile the full range of interests in the Great Lakes region. “By working together we have the opportunity to increase the value and impact of Great Lakes coastal science,” Brown said.

Easily accessible and up-to-date information on coastlines is important for integrating cyclic lake level changes and changes in storminess with an understanding of coastal vulnerability, sediment management, erosion of beaches and bluffs, coastal ecosystems, emergency response, and maritime transportation and navigation.

Updates on the Great Lakes Coastal Summit will be posted here as they become available.