Are West Michigan’s Sand Dunes Disappearing?
Michigan is home to a large collection of “living” sand dunes, meaning they are constantly moving and eroding. As we Michiganders know, you can visit the same beach twice and get a different view each time! However, in recent years, researchers have noticed that Michigan’s sand dunes are increasingly covered in vegetation, such as plants and trees.
Certainly, the dunes need vegetation to prevent them from blowing away completely, but what is the cause of this new vegetation and should we be worried about it? Two dune researchers, Kevin McKeehan and Alan Arbogast, are trying to find the “root” of the cause of all this vegetation. They say they have theories, but end up with more questions than answers.
Using repeat photography, a process in which you essentially compare photos side-by-side, McKeehan and Arbogast notice extreme changes along the sand dunes of Michigan’s east and west coasts. Each image they compared, some from 13 years ago up to 100 years ago, all had the same thing in common: less sand, more vegetation.
Why the change?
Some believe the increased rainfall in recent years has created the perfect environment for vegetation to take hold and grow in the sand. Others say the increased carbon dioxide in the air offers more nutrients for plants to thrive. Could this be a sign of more invasive plant species? There has also been a measurable decrease in wind, which could mean the dunes are moving less. McKeehan told Fox 2 from Detroit, “there are potential culprits, but no hard evidence.”
Will the dunes disappear?
Using carbon dating, McKeehan and Arbogast reduced the creation of the Michigan sand dunes to around 5,000 years ago. Through this process, they were able to determine that the dunes grew in stages. Arbogast says, “It didn’t all grow at the same time. It grew, then stopped, then grew, then stopped again,” adding, “It stopped long enough that ‘a forest lives there, then it grew back.’
This may just be the next life cycle of our dunes. This period of inactivity may possibly be followed by another period of active change, and so on. It’s a great reminder not to take for granted all the things that make Pure Michigan so special, including the fact that we have “the world’s largest dune system paired with a freshwater lake.”
If you want to see how Michigan’s sand dunes have changed over time, check out McKeehan and Arbogast’s extensive “Sands of Time” project here.
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