Michigan Nature Monday: Dunes

Snow blankets much of Michigan now, which may have you dreaming of summer vacations to the beach, and for good reason – Michigan has plenty to choose from! But sandy shores and their hilly companions—dunes—support more than just a retreat from the daily grind.

Vegetation grows on a dune. Photo by Andrew Bacon.

Dunes in Michigan are unique because, unlike their desert counterparts, they are impacted greatly by the water of the Great Lakes. Fluctuating lake levels contribute to dune formation by stabilizing the dunes with increased water levels as well as increased wave action in high years. These impacts are usually so slow-moving that they go unnoticed, but recent erosion along Lake Michigan due to increased lake levels had the dramatic effect of damaging some houses built close to the edges of these dunes.

One distinguishing characteristic of Michigan’s dunes is the amount of vegetation that can be found on them. There is a limited supply of sand in the Great Lakes being deposited on the dunes. This in time allows for various grasses and trees to take root and grow, further slowing or stopping the movement of the sand and allowing for more vegetation to grow. These plants are therefore critical to preventing erosion and dune migration.

Several rare plant types are supported by these dune habitats including Pitcher’s thistle, Houghton’s goldenrod, and Lake Huron tansy, just to name a few. At MNA’s Lake Huron Sand Dunes Plant Preserve in Chippewa County, a unique natural community known as a “wooded dune and swale complex” exists as a series of sandy ridges and low, swampy areas that were formed in multiple stages as lake levels receded around 12,000 years ago.

Lake Huron tansy. Photo courtesy Peggy & Jerry Keeney.

As with many natural communities throughout Michigan, a major threat to the health of this sanctuary is the impact of invasive species. Particularly at Lake Huron Sand Dunes Plant Preserve, invaders such as Spotted knapweed and European Marsh thistle are aided by habitat disturbance. MNA monitors the sanctuary regularly for signs of disturbance and works to remove invasive species before they become too widespread.

So as you plan your next Michigan beach vacation, remember that the sand is part of a much larger and ever-changing habitat complex.


Adopt a Beach, Save the Great Lakes

By Angie Jackson

Together, the Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater body in the world. As many as 26 million people depend on water drawn directly from the lakes, which provide approximately one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water supply.

The Great Lakes are also home to some of the most beautiful and accessible shorelines in the country. From St. Joseph, Benton Harbor and Ludington in the west to St. Clair Shores, Bay City and Oscoda in the east, and all the way up to Marquette and the Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan’s shorelines offer some of the best, close-to-home beach vacation destinations. While many of us have enjoyed the Great Lakes’ natural splendor, it is also our responsibility to help keep the beaches healthy and beautiful for generations to come.

Adopt-a-Beach, a program started by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, makes it easy for people to make a difference. The year-round program allows families, businesses and whole communities to adopt a beach along one of the Great Lakes shores. Adopters visit the beach multiple times each year to collect data on beach health, longshore current, litter conditions and water bacteria levels. Last year, the program facilitated cleanup events at 292 locations throughout the Great Lakes’ shorelines, and volunteers removed 31,295 pounds of trash.

First-time adopters are invited to training sessions on the Internet or in-person and can also view informational videos on YouTube. The information is recorded into a regional database and used to improve beach conditions.

Can’t commit to adopting a beach but still want to contribute to the cause? Volunteer at an upcoming Adopt-a-Beach clean up event open to the public in Muskegon and Ottawa Counties. Click here for more information.

Adopting a beach is just one way you can help protect Michigan’s special natural areas for future generations. MNA offers Protection Certificates, which allow you to endow a portion of Michigan’s natural land. For only $10 per 100 square feet, you can protect a portion of land forever. Certificates make great gifts for friends and family. To purchase a certificate online, visit the MNA store.

For more information on how you can get involved in these and other efforts to protect the environment, see the How You Can Help section on our website.