Bluff erosion model helps restore Lake Erie shoreline


Alex Trabold, Staff writer

Recently Mercyhurst was awarded a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to create a bluff erosion model to protect and restore the Lake Erie Coastal Zone. Key members of this project include Environmental Science co-directors Nicholas Lang, Ph.D., chair of the Geology department and Christopher Dolanc, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biology.

According to the press release from Mercyhurst University, the model will be “created from tree ring and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data.” This process as well as climate data will help researchers to deter-mine the erosion event frequency over the past 150 years. The main purpose of the project is to undo the damage to the bluffs along the Lake Erie shoreline caused by the crashing waves.

“Much of the shoreline along the southern edge of Lake Erie is made up of bluffs, or cliffs,” Lang said. “These bluffs consist of easily erodible glacial deposits and the crashing of the waves on Lake Erie into those bluffs undermines them and causes them to collapse.”

The sections of the coastline that are to be developed by 2030 through the project will be in North Springfield to Fairview townships according to the 2009 Pennsylvania Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Plan.

Lang emphasizes the significance of this issue as all property owners along the shoreline are losing real estate. Any infra-structures, such as houses near the bluff edge, are at risk of falling into the lake.

“The rate at which this erosion occurs varies along the coastline,” Lang said. “Along some stretches of the coast, this erosion may be over two feet per year whereas along other stretches it can be less than a foot per year. So putting tighter constraints on the rate of erosion and how that erosion is actually occurring allows for better planning of how land along the shoreline is used.”

Lang emphasizes how this in-formation can assist landowners about which parts of the shore-lines are the biggest risk, along with the rest of Erie County.

“It’s important to protect much of the shoreline in its natural state, for the organisms that live there, and to allow process-es like erosion to happen naturally,” Dolanc said. “However, it’s unreasonable to expect zero development along the shore in a place like Erie County, so we hope to offer guidelines regard-ing the most stable locations for development, to focus those efforts in places that are best for both human society and the natural ecosystems.”

Both Lang and Dolanc cite time as their biggest challenge. With the amount of shoreline to cover and only a year to per-form the project, they will need to cover all the ground they possibly can.

“We will focus on sections of the shoreline where community growth is predicted to be the greatest over the next several years,” Lang said. “We will also need to collect a lot of tree cores with this project to help answer some of the questions we are asking and processing all of them will take a good amount of time.”

Dolanc is interested in the new type of dendrochronology needed for this project. Dendrochronology is the technique of dating and analyzing environmental change through the pat-terns of annual growth rings in tree trunks.

“Previously, I have used tree rings to determine how tree species respond to climate, or to understand the natural history of an area, but this will be the first time I’ve used tree rings for a direct application to human society,” Dolanc said.

Lang is entering a new area of research as well. Most of his work has typically examined landscapes on planet Earth and other planets that have been shaped by the volcanic process. Looking at hillside erosion is not something that he has done much of before.

“This work will also incorporate a good amount of dendrochronology to see if we can more precisely pinpoint when some of the erosion events along the lake shore occurred,” Lang said.

It seems that not only will this project be beneficial to the Laker Erie Coastal Zone, but also to students and their research here at Mercyhurst University.

“Doing any sort of research is a great opportunity to practice and continue to hone various skills that, as educators, we can bring into the classroom,” Lang said. “It helps us stay on top of current and relevant issues that allow us to keep our classes up to date, which is always in the best interest of our students.”

Lang and Dolanc will also have undergraduate students involved in the research process for the buff erosion model.

“Getting students involved in the research process is some-thing I very much enjoy doing,” Lang said, “that is one of the reasons why I really love being at an undergraduate-focused program.”

Those involved in the project are expected to present their findings publicly at Mercyhurst at a workshop in the spring of 2021.