Chicago, IL

Erosion Along Chicago Beaches Can be Seen From One Day to the Next

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Erosion from high waves on Lake Michigan quickly create dangerous conditions leading to stop-gap measures to prevent injury and property damage
Dangerous erosion along Lake Michigan beach in Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago causes large drops along the shorelineAuthor

As recently as two weeks ago, the shoreline in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago sloped down in a gradual decline into the water of Lake Michigan. But high waters and rough waves have caused a sharp drop as you approach the water with the loose packed sand and piles of rocks thrown onto shore by storms, shifting precariously under foot. Despite good weather and light winds that we currently have these sudden drops close to the water line can be seen along the beaches in Rogers Park, with new drop-offs occurring almost daily.

Changing water levels along the entire Lake Michigan shoreline is causing dangerous conditions for anyone visiting the lake, with some of the worst damage found in the Rogers Park neighborhood. These problems are believed to be growing as climate change alters patterns of precipitation and evaporation through increases in temperature. These changes have resulted in high waters getting higher, and low waters getting lower. The swing between these two patterns is occurring at a faster pace than at any time in history.

The current water levels of Lake Michigan are 16” higher than last November, 5’7” higher than it’s low in 2013, 9” from all-time record high in 1986. However, a drop of 3” is expected over the next month.

Part of the treacherous conditions have been related to beach erosion. The high waves that occur during storms don’t only lead to erosion but also toss thousands of stones onto the shore until what were once sandy beaches become mostly covered in layers of rocks. The high winds whip sand around and with the crashing of the waves against the shoreline, the beaches become treacherous with hard packed sand being replaced with loose sand which you sink into.

On my most recent walks along the shore, even after over two weeks of calm weather, I sank into the sand up above my ankles with each step which it very difficult to walk. What normally was a 40-minute walk, stretched to over an hour as I dragged through the sand. I fell several times, one day actually into the water as the sand shifted, taking my feet out from under me.

Attempting to get away from this looser sand however, also proved dangerous as much of the beach front is now covered in rocks so you go from shifting sands to shifting rocks and falling on these large stones is painful. Today, I ended up with a number of cuts on one hand and arm as I came crashing down onto a pile of sliding rocks, falling a second time as I tried to regain my feet.

Other more serious signs of damage to the coastline were also evident. I saw two sinkholes that weren’t too deep but were quite wide on my walk today, one wide one having opened up along a sea wall that used to stand about 20 feet back from the edge of the water. Water now rushes directly up to the wall and goes over it into a depression around 10 feet across even when waves aren’t large. A hole has formed in the wall, and each time a wave is large enough to hit the wall, water erupts from the hole in addition to over the wall, which has formed a small pond behind the stone structure.

Crews have implemented emergency efforts in the past several years to prevent further erosion related dangers to people and structures in Rogers Park. Armor stone or riprap have been placed along some area beaches, effectively covering the entire beach front until it is no longer visible. These areas have subsequently been closed to the public. Other beaches in the Rogers Park neighborhood as well as other parts of the Chicago lakefront are also being altered or covered in order to prevent further damage and dangers.

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Chicago, IL

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