Shared from the 5/20/2018 Sandusky Register eEdition

Shoreline threatened

Erosion alters Lake Erie coast


Large waves hit the shoreline in Huron during strong storms and flooding on Friday.

Register photo/JILLY BURNS


Register graphic/KAREN GIDCUMB

Data from NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory shows a gradual increase in Lake Erie’s water level since 2015. In March of this year, water levels were within inches of record highs set in 1986.


Year after year, strong storms, waves and other environmental forces alter the Lake Erie shoreline.

When houses first began to build in the trees between Cleveland Avenue in Huron and the lake, real estate photos touted Grand Forest Beach, a residential development with a “lake view from every lot.”

Early 1900s images of this area show cottages being constructed among families playing on a sandy beach.

But these new homeowners didn’t know the lake would one day turn on them and threaten their homes and safety.

Water level fluctuations

Over time, the lake forced locals to turn this once beautiful beach with easy access to the water in Huron into a heavily armored wall with jagged concrete, rocks and steel dowel bars.

Today, some of the houses along the lake teeter on the artificial cliffs mere feet from the water’s edge.

Most of the sand was swept away by a series of storms and high water events, especially when Lake Erie hit a record high 574 feet in 1986.

“We used to have some fairly nice beaches here and there have been a series of storms and some changes along the coastline where a lot of that sand is lost,” said Scudder Mackey, the chief of Ohio Division of Wildlife Office of Coastal Management. “It’s either been taken offshore or been trapped by structures.”

Although the water level has fluctuated since the 1980s, the lake is seeing near record highs again.

Consistently above average precipitation throughout the Great Lakes region has caused Lake Erie’s water levels to continually rise since 2015, according to Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. The water level in March, 573 feet, was within one foot of the record high.

The natural balance between precipitation and evaporation cause the water levels to fluctuate.

In a typical year, the water is usually higher in the spring because of snowmelt and spring showers. The levels usually decrease in the late summer and early fall as warmer temperatures evaporate surface water.

“If the water levels increase year after year, then there is an imbalance in the system,” Gronewold said.

There is always a concern of localized coastal flooding and shoreline erosion during years of higher-than-average water levels, like 2017 and 2018, especially when large storms hit specific regions.

Storms crash to shore

With a lack of a natural shoreline and deteriorating infrastructure, parcels along the bluff are facing the full wrath of Lake Erie.

“The main cause of erosion along the shoreline is wave attack,” Mackey said. “(The lake) can generate some fairly large waves.”

When a powerful storm blows across the lake, large waves develop and crash onto the shore. Normally it moves sand along the shoreline, but if there isn’t much sand, it will basically eat away at the base of the bluffs.

During March, four strong nor’easters hit the eastern U.S. in the span of three weeks, according to the Weather Channel. Although most of the large-scale damage from these storms was along the eastern seaboard, the storms hit northern Ohio, too.

In most cases in Huron, the waves crashed directly into seawalls and homes, causing expensive damage.

According to Mackey, 75 percent of the shoreline is armored, meaning stone and concrete protect property.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in 2012, scientists discovered areas of the shoreline that were heavily armored where damaged much more severely than those shorelines that were protected by natural features, like beaches, dunes and wetlands, Mackey said.

For homeowners along the Lake Erie shoreline, there is no other option but to fortify and hunker down.

Seeing an uptick in shoreline erosion issues because of this year’s high water level and strong storm events, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is offering an expedited shoreline protection permit to homeowners with severe damage.

Read Sunday’s Register to learn about the resources available for residents along the shoreline.

Reach photographer Jilly Burns at and follow her on Twitter @jillyburnsphoto.


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