Updated: Nov 14
In recent decades, the global environmental crisis caused by climate change has reached a breaking point that can no longer be ignored. Global temperatures are rising as a result of the human enhanced greenhouse effect, weather patterns are becoming more severe and sporadic, ecosystems and animals are dying at an unprecedented rate, and sea levels are rising at rapid and continuous rates. When these effects occur together at a given area, they have the power to cause a vortex that can rapidly destroy an area or cause more prevalent disturbances than before. One example of this would be shoreline erosion, which has seen a rise to prominence in urban areas such as Chicago.
Specifically, coastal erosion in Chicago primarily occurs along the shores of Lake Michigan, which is referred to as the shoreline in the context of this website. While not directly connected to the ocean, Lake Michigan experiences erosion processes similar to those affecting coastal areas.
The main factors contributing to shoreline erosion in Chicago include
Wave Action: The strong and consistent winds over Lake Michigan generate powerful waves that can erode the shoreline. Waves carry away sediment, including sand and gravel, leading to the gradual retreat of the shoreline.
Winter Ice: During the colder months, freezing temperatures cause the formation of ice on the lake's surface. This ice can push against the shoreline, leading to erosion and damage to coastal structures.
Storm Events: Intense storms can generate higher waves and surges that exacerbate erosion along the shoreline. These storms are more common during the spring and fall seasons.
Human Activities: Human development and modifications along the shoreline can impact erosion in Chicago. Construction of structures like breakwaters, jetties, and seawalls can alter natural sediment flow and disrupt the equilibrium of the shoreline.
Shoreline erosion in Chicago has resulted in various consequences, including the loss of beaches and the potential threat to coastal infrastructure. To address erosion concerns, Chicago has implemented various measures, including beach nourishment projects, the placement of breakwaters and groins, (Define or substitute more common word) and the installation of erosion control structures. These efforts aim to stabilize the shoreline, protect infrastructure, and maintain recreational areas along Lake Michigan. However, alternative has proved to be a cut above the rest and one that favors that which is already present.
Nature-based solutions (NBS) are strategies that utilize natural processes and ecosystems to address environmental challenges. For shoreline erosion, several nature-based solutions can be employed to manage and mitigate erosion while also providing additional benefits to the ecosystem. When used properly, these solutions can prove more effective, cost efficient, and aesthetic than other alternatives such as concrete. Examples of nature-based solutions include
Beach Nourishment and Restoration: Adding sediment, such as sand, to replenish eroded beaches helps restore natural coastal processes and provides a buffer against wave energy. Restoring and enhancing beach and dune systems along Lake Michigan can stabilize the shoreline and provide protection against erosion.
Ex.) The Montrose Beach in Chicago, the Chicago Park District regularly replenishes and restores this popular beach by adding sand to combat erosion and maintain its recreational value.
Dune Restoration and Stabilization: Restoring and enhancing dune systems along the coastline helps trap sediment and acts as a natural barrier against erosion. By planting native vegetation and stabilizing dunes with grasses and shrubs, the dune ecosystem can be preserved, minimizing erosion impacts.
Ex.) The Indiana Dunes National Park, located near Chicago, implements dune restoration projects by involving planting native vegetation like beach grasses to stabilize dunes and protect the shoreline from erosion.
Living Shorelines: Implementing living shoreline techniques involves using natural elements like vegetation, oyster reefs, and submerged aquatic vegetation to stabilize and protect coastlines. These features help dissipate wave energy, trap sediment, and create habitats for diverse marine species.
Ex.) The Lake Calumet region in Chicago has seen the implementation of living shorelines through oyster reef structures and submerged aquatic vegetation. These practices are utilized to dissipate wave energy and stabilize the shoreline, reducing erosion impacts.
Green Infrastructure: Implementing green infrastructure practices in urban areas can help manage stormwater runoff, reducing erosion impacts on the coastline. Techniques such as green roofs, permeable pavement, and bioswales can help retain and filter stormwater, reducing the amount of runoff reaching the shoreline.
Ex.) Chicago's RainReady program incorporates green infrastructure practices through the use of bioswales, such as the ones installed along streets, to capture and manage stormwater runoff, reducing erosion and promoting water infiltration.
Coastal Vegetation Management: Promoting and preserving coastal vegetation such as native grasses, shrubs, and trees helps stabilize shorelines by anchoring soil and sediment. These plants help reduce the erosive impact of waves and storms while providing habitat for wildlife.
Ex.) The Illinois Department of Natural Resources promotes the preservation of coastal vegetation at sites like Illinois Beach State Park which help stabilize the shoreline, mitigate erosion, and provide habitat for wildlife.
Integrated Coastal Zone Management: Adopting an integrated approach to coastal zone management that considers the interaction between land, water, and human activities is crucial. This approach involves comprehensive planning, incorporating nature-based solutions, and managing development along the coastline sustainably.
Ex.) The Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance sets regulations and guidelines to balance development activities along the lakefront while preserving the natural environment and public access to the shoreline.
Nature-based solutions offer a sustainable and resilient approach to coastline erosion management. By harnessing the power of natural processes and ecosystems, these strategies provide long-term benefits for both the environment and human communities, while minimizing the adverse impacts often associated with traditional hard-engineered solutions. Through implementing these nature-based solutions, Chicago can effectively manage shoreline erosion, promote ecosystem health, and enhance the resilience of its coastal areas to erosion and other environmental challenges.
But why exactly should nature-based solutions to coastline erosion be used over other solutions such as a sea wall?
Well, nature-based solutions for coastline erosion in Chicago are preferred because they have work in harmony with natural processes and ecosystems, minimizing negative impacts on the environment. They preserve and restore habitats, promote biodiversity, and protect sensitive coastal ecosystems such as wetlands and dunes. Specifically, nature-based solutions are a better solution to shoreline erosion because they are
Climate Resilient: Nature-based solutions enhance the resilience of coastlines to climate change impacts, such as sea-level rise and increased storm intensity. They provide adaptive capacity by allowing natural systems to adjust and respond to changing conditions.
Cost-effective: In many cases, nature-based solutions can be more cost-effective than traditional hard-engineered structures. They often require less maintenance and offer long-term benefits by providing natural protection against erosion and reducing the need for constant repairs.
Have Multiple Benefits: Nature-based solutions offer multiple benefits beyond erosion control. They improve water quality, enhance recreational opportunities, provide habitat for wildlife, and contribute to the overall aesthetic value of coastal areas.
Promote Community Engagement and Education: Implementing nature-based solutions encourages community involvement and fosters a sense of stewardship among residents. It offers opportunities for educational programs, citizen science initiatives, and community-based conservation efforts, promoting awareness and appreciation for the natural environment.
Have Long-term Sustainability: Nature-based solutions promote sustainable coastal management practices. They align with principles of ecosystem-based management, emphasizing the importance of balancing environmental, social, and economic aspects of coastal development.
Visually Appealing: Nature-based solutions present a more visually appealing landscape to the average person because of their recognizable and specific look. More examples below.
Moreover, nature-based solutions can also be used in place of gray infrastructure. Meaning infrastructure that is not composed of or has components to any carbon barring material (soil, grass, wood, etc.)
Green Infrastructure Solutions (Natural)
Heavy Rain Flooding
“By providing space for managed flooding, communities can reduce the flood risks for homes and businesses. These spaces can include cemeteries, golf courses, and parks.”
“Restoring or constructing new marsh or wetlands provides areas for water to be stored, therefore reducing flooding.”
“Rain gardens reduce flash flooding by collecting rainwater and allowing time for the water to be absorbed or carried away. Bioswales are larger but functionally similar, and usually a part of a larger stormwater drainage system.”
Continual Major Flooding
“Restoring and building up natural infrastructure such as barrier islands, oyster and coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass, and salt marshes is a cost-effective and eco-friendly way to reduce flood risks.”
“Beaches and dunes work as natural walls to reduce the impact of storm surges. Adding sand to make beaches bigger helps limit coastal erosion and protect communities from flooding.”
The Friends of the Parks published its Last Four Miles study in 2009. While not implemented, it showed what the Edgewater shore might look like after applying nature-based solutions.
By adopting nature-based solutions, Chicago can effectively manage shoreline erosion while promoting the conservation and restoration of its coastal ecosystems. These solutions offer multiple benefits and contribute to the long-term sustainability and resilience of the city's shoreline areas.
In 2023, there were two walking tours of the Osterman Beach Natural area. Here you can download the PDF from those tours and take yourself on a self-guided walk.