Creating resilient coastlines and adaptive communities in order to confront the rising lake levels

As lake levels rise, the effects along the shoreline can be destructive and, at times, deadly. (Above) The Black Rocks at Marquette’s Presque Park have long been a favorite spot for summertime recreation. (Below) Today, high lake water levels now make it possible for waves to completely deluge the tall cliffs during storms. Two people were killed in this location during a severe storm in October 2017. A record wave of 28.8 feet high was recorded during that storm. (Photos by Jerry Mills)

Story and graphics by Superior Watershed Partnership staff

That staggering fact bears repeating; Lake Superior water levels have risen over three feet since 2013. Combine record lake levels with more frequent and more extreme storm events and it is a recipe for disaster. Almost every coastal community on Lake Superior from Duluth to Thunder Bay to Sault Ste. Marie has reported unprecedented coastal erosion and infrastructure damages.
Marquette is no exception. Fortunately, the City of Marquette, in cooperation with the Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP) and other local partners, has been working for over a decade to better plan, prepare and adapt to address the impacts of climate change. This article provides a brief chronology of Marquette’s coastal challenges as well as coastal success stories, including the recent $2.5 million federal grant to implement a large-scale coastal restoration project that will begin this spring.

In 2012, Marquette received a planning grant through the Michigan Coastal Management Program to develop restoration alternatives for almost a mile of city shoreline immediately adjacent to and including Lakeshore Boulevard. Working with Baird Coastal Engineering the city selected a design concept after hosting a series of public input sessions in cooperation with the SWP.
Unfortunately, even the best plans simply sit on the shelf and gather dust if there is no funding to implement the project and that is exactly what happened with the Baird plan for many years. Meanwhile, other forces were at work.
Record warm followed by record cold
The year 2012 was a record warm year for Lake Superior. It was followed by the winter of 2013-2014 and a polar vortex that ushered in record cold temperatures resulting in nearly one hundred percent ice coverage of Lake Superior.
Climatologists credit that ice coverage and the resulting reduced evaporation as one factor that led to the rise in Lake Superior water levels. 2013 was also the year that the SWP released the “Lake Superior Climate Adaptation, Mitigation and Implementation Plan”. Produced in cooperation with Great Lakes Integrated Science Assessments, Climate Solutions University and other partners, the document was designed to assist coastal communities in identifying and prioritizing climate risks and adaptation actions.
Later that same year the Marquette Planning Department and Planning Commission released a comprehensive new planning document titled “Adapting to Climate Change and Variability” with detailed adaptation recommendations specifically for Marquette.

Also in 2013, retired NMU professor Bob Kuhlishek and retired teacher Greg Seppanen approached the SWP about forming a diverse group of local stakeholders to further climate education and climate adaptation with an emphasis on engaging local units of government. The SWP agreed to help form the group and host their website and soon the Climate Adaptation Task Force was officially launched.
Then, in 2015, the task force, in cooperation with SWP and NMU, had the honor of hosting a high-level team of planners and climatologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NOAA team worked with over 30 regional planners and government officials to identify and prioritize local vulnerabilities and climate adaptation needs. Marquette was one of only a few communities in the country to benefit from working with this elite NOAA Climate Planning Team.

Early in 2016 the SWP received a technical grant through the Michigan Coastal Management Program to develop the Great Lakes Shoreviewer; a unique online risk assessment and climate planning tool. The Shoreviewer provides professional aerial color photography of every inch of Lake Superior coastline (and many islands) in the Upper Peninsula plus prioritized sections of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. It also provides potential risk rankings (high, medium, low) for coastal property, buildings, roads, and infrastructure.
Local, state, and federal data, including multi-spectral imagery, were also used to create the Shoreviewer.  SWP, and project partners Applied Ecological Services and 906 Technologies, were thrilled to have NOAA include the Shoreviewer in the U.S. Climate Resilience Tool Kit ( The Shoreviewer was also one of several state-of-the-art coastal planning tools used to help identify and prioritize coastal restoration alternatives for Marquette.

On Oct. 24, 2017, a massive Lake Superior storm front produced both record-setting waves and record-setting coastal damages. Thanks to a unique Great Lakes monitoring program funded by Northern Michigan University, and coordinated in cooperation with the SWP, a buoy deployed near Granite Island (approximately 10 miles north of Marquette) documented a massive wave (28.8 feet) during that same storm event.
According to the Great Lakes Observing System that is the largest documented wave ever recorded on any of the Great Lakes since records were first kept! Sadly, that same storm also claimed two lives at the Black Rocks inside Presque Isle Park. More recently another fall storm in 2019 decimated over 1,400 feet of natural shoreline just north of Picnic Rocks in Marquette. The coastal erosion caused by this storm was so severe that it toppled massive white pines and came within a few feet of undermining Lakeshore Boulevard.

CITY OF MARQUETTE COASTAL RESTORATION AND GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS — A map outlines the efforts that have been made or are pending to revitalize the shoreline in Marquette and improve its resiliency as lake levels rise. Native tree planting, coastal wetland restoration, dune and coastal habitat restoration, storm water infrastructure improvements, beach grass planting, invasive plant removal, and relocating Lakeshore Boulevard further inland are among the efforts.

In 2018, the SWP dusted off the 2012 Baird coastal restoration plan and, with a few updates, submitted a proposal to the National Coastal Resilience Program offered through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Recently, it was announced that the proposal was funded for $2.5 million with the City of Marquette providing an additional $3 million in project match.
Of 33 coastal projects funded nationwide, the Marquette project was one of only two funded on the Great Lakes; the others were on the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In addition, the Marquette proposal was the second-largest award in the country. The City of Marquette and the SWP are currently working with Baird Coastal Engineering once again to update the 2012 plan to reflect current lake levels and other climate variables with a two-year implementation phase that will begin this spring.
The project will incorporate living shoreline components, including coastal wetlands, dune and swale complex and other natural features, while creating over 25 acres of public green space with improved public trails and handicap access.

Over the last decade the City of Marquette and the SWP have also been busy implementing numerous smaller coastal restoration projects throughout the city with funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other programs. Projects have included coastal wetland restoration, green infrastructure projects to improve storm water quality, invasive plant removal, tree planting and dune restoration with the Great Lakes Conservation Corps and community volunteers
These previous projects, combined with the new $5.5 million coastal resiliency project, will transform a former industrial area into a more natural, living shoreline once again.
Lastly, there are additional state and federal grant proposals pending that, if funded, would address virtually every current coastal resiliency challenge facing the community and help maintain Marquette’s reputation as a model Great Lakes community. Stay tuned!

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