In Michigan, the impacts of coastal erosion have been clearly visible in the past two years.
Homes that have been on the Great Lakes for generations are being threatened by rising water levels and a disappearing shore. In the past few years, some property owners have seen as much as one-third of a mile of soil wash away, leaving homes less than 100 feet from lakeside cliffs. Other homes have already fallen into Lake Michigan.
Attribution: MLive - YouTube
What Michigan City Has the Worst Erosion?
Erosion isn't happening evenly along Michigan's 3,224 miles of shoreline. Currents, wave patterns, and shoreline geography all affect which areas are most vulnerable.
The ongoing erosion crisis means shorelines are evolving at a rapid pace. While erosion data isn't yet available from the latest year, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy does keep data on the 250 miles of shoreline that are considered high-risk erosion areas. Because the erosion information is generated from each municipality, information could vary by reporting year. However, the erosion data starts to give us a baseline understanding of which cities have the highest risk from the recent surge in erosion.
Here's where erosion is the worst based on property records from individual municipalities.
Michigan Cities with the Worst Coastal Erosion Rate (Feet/year)
|Erosion Rank||Township/ Village||County||Highly Vulnerable Areas||
More Protected Areas
|Burt Township||Alger County||17.1||
|Au Sable||Iosco County||9.2||1.4|
|McMillan Township||Luce County||7.6||1.1|
|Lake Township||Benzie County||5.6||1.4|
|7||White River||Muskegon County||5.5||
|Blaine Township||Benzie County||5.3||1.5|
The majority of these cities are in the western part of Michigan, along the coast of Lake Michigan. Three of the cities on the list are on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. One erosion hotspot is near the top of the state along Lake Huron.
How Have Water Levels Changed in Lake Michigan?
One of the main reasons why erosion rates have become so threatening is that water levels are at all-time highs.
Following a period of low water levels, there was an extreme fluctuation, and water levels began to rise in 2013. In 2020, the Great Lakes reached all-time high water levels after rising about six feet in seven years.
The change surprised newcomers to the region who bought property when water was low. The speed and volatility has also surprised homeowners who have lived on the lake their whole lives.
Note that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports data for Lake Michigan-Huron as one unit because the two lakes are connected via the Straits of Mackinac.
Lake levels are cyclical, and experts know high waters will eventually recede. However, lakewater cycles are different from ocean tides or sea level increases. "Here in the Great Lakes, it’s not predictable," Ethan Theuerkauf, geology professor at Michigan State, told the Chicago Tribune. "What’s frustrating, but interesting, about the Great Lakes is they’re so dynamic, complex, and unpredictable."
However, the erosion that happened during the past year won't be forgotten. "When bluffs retreat, it’s permanent, so the next time the water levels go down, the system will not respond in the same way,” he said. And when water levels rise again, the shoreline protections that eroded away in the past year won't be there. Even as water levels are expected to decline in 2021, the mayor of Traverse City says that the recent trend “does not mean we are out of the woods.”
Just as the water level changes, public sentiment about erosion control can change too. Erin Argyilan, geosciences professor and erosion researcher at Indiana University Northwest, noted, "Once the disaster is over, we shelve the projects, and don't plan or put money towards or anticipate the next inevitable time that it will happen."
What's the Scope of Erosion Damage in Michigan?
The pervasiveness of the erosion damage is so massive that "no one even has a ballpark figure for the ongoing high-water damage throughout the Great Lakes," reports Pew. Each household and municipality have been managing their own area of shoreline to fight high water and manage erosion.
And still, properties are at risk. In a 2000 study that was published while lake water levels were low, FEMA reported that more than 16,000 structures along the Great Lakes would be susceptible to erosion by 2060. The same 2000 study estimates that the average cost of erosion loss in the Great Lakes is $110 million per year, with homeowners taking the biggest hit.
The annual cost of erosion damage in the Great Lakes:
- Owners: $50 million
- Community: $30 million
- National Flood Insurance Fund: up to $30 million
We can only imagine that an analysis done after the recent erosion surge would show more homes at risk, a shorter timeline for damage, and higher cost estimates.
What Are Homeowners Doing to Protect Their Property?
There has been an increase in homeowners who want to build erosion control barriers along the coast of waterfront homes.
Between 2014 and 2019, the number of permit applications for work along the Lake Michigan shoreline has increased by 217 percent. Then between 2019 and 2020, the number of permit requests doubled again.
In addition to reinforcing the shoreline, homeowners across Michigan can also take steps to reinforce their structures and protect against water damage.
- Foundation piers can anchor homes into the bedrock, stabilizing the home against issues caused by weak soil and erosion.
- Sump pumps can quickly remove water from the home during a flood, and systems with a backup battery will continue working during power outages.
- Crack repair can help you resolve damage to concrete walls, floors, and basements.
- Waterproofing and drainage can make your home more resilient against changing weather conditions and environmental threats.