Bluff evolution and long-term recession rates, southwestern Lake Michigan


Where eroding cohesive sediments are present, Lake Michigan bluffs range up to 40 m in height, exposing multiple glacial stratigraphic units. Following the model presented here, bluffs form as a wave-cut terrace erodes inland from a point near the original shoreline. The erosion plane is nearly horizontal, in contrast with the eastward dip of the glacial units inherited from underlying bedrock. Therefore, terraces eroding inland produce progressively higher bluffs and expose successively older units at the toe and beneath the lake. This process was repeated several times as lake levels sequentially dropped to their modern stage. The initial modern shoreline, and hence the width of the wave-cut terrace, was determined from four offshore seismic and bottom-sampling profiles. It was picked as an inflection point in the lake bed, occurring offshore of dipping reflectors intersecting the lake bottom. The calculated average recession rate over a 2500-year duration of the modern stage is 1.5 m/yr in contrast to average rates of approximately 0.6 m/yr measured over the last century. Thus rates decrease through time as the terrace widens and wave energy is dampened. By correlating bluff height to recession distance, a third rate of approximately 2.7 m/yr for the first 940 years of recession is calculated from relict Nipissing bluffs. The three rates define a steeply decaying exponential curve in early stages of bluff retreat, flattening into a nearly linear function after 1000 years.


Geography, Geology, and Planning

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Environmental Geology