Openlands works across the Chicago metropolitan region to advance nature-based solutions to climate change, improve the health and well-being of communities, and create a more verdant region for all. Learn more about our work and how you can get involved to help make a more verdant, equitable region with Openlands.
Spring 2019 was one of the wettest ever in northern Illinois.
The increased frequency of weather systems that cause sporadic, torrential storms are symptomatic of climate change in the Chicago region. Jim Angel, Illinois’ former state climatologist, recently stated that more intense storms and heavy rains that drop several inches at a time are becoming more frequent across northern Illinois.
According to the National Weather Service, three of the five wettest years on record in Chicago have occurred in the last decade, including 2018, which ranked fourth with over 49 inches of precipitation (the annual average is around 36 inches). And we are starting to see these weather patterns happen annually. During one 24-hour period in July 2017, Lake County, IL received over seven inches of rain. The Governor declared a state of emergency. In 2018, Lake County was under flood conditions on six separate occasions. And this past May was the wettest ever for the month, surpassing the record set only last year.
Our region – everything from rural towns to densely populated urban areas, farmland, housing, routes of transportation, and schools – was not built to withstand the “new normal” of seasonal flooding. For many of us, the impacts of flooding are felt during our daily commute, but for far too many of us, the effects are felt worst when water is pouring into our basements or when an entire year’s crops – and income – are lost to intense farmland flooding.
Farm fields in Illinois are currently so saturated that less than half of the typical crop of corn and soybeans, the state’s two largest crops, has been planted this year.
These are exactly the type of climate impacts on the Midwest we were warned about last year in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, and that means we need to get to work on implementing climate solutions.
The increased intensity of rain is forcing us to rethink how we can design our communities to not flood.
Photo (top), flooding in Suburban Burbank, 2014: Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune
Increases in rainfall prompted the Illinois State Water Survey to update Bulletin 70, which measures the frequency of rainfall and the intensity of rainstorms in Illinois. The Illinois State Water Survey found that infrastructure was up to 25 to 40% inadequate to handle current storms. Updating Bulletin 70 is important because it is the basis for engineers to size stormwater pipes, detention ponds, bridges above rivers and streams, nature-based solutions, and other infrastructure to handle expected rain and snowmelt. While this is a critical first step, it still leaves us vulnerable to climate change. It is critical to add the amount flooding will likely increase when building infrastructure to last over the next century. Otherwise, we are building to flood.
Photo: Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune
Over the last decade, agencies and communities have taken important steps towards requiring and incentivizing better stormwater solutions. However, we know it isn’t enough. For our region to be healthy, competitive and livable, it is essential to design lasting pipes, reservoirs and green infrastructure to accommodate our changing climate. This means finding ways to systemize greater integration of green technology, such as permeable pavement, and natural features, such as rain gardens and trees, into public spaces. Nature-based solutions, combined with traditional infrastructure, can hold and slow substantial amounts of rain and snow melt to reduce the pressure on pipes when they are most full. This can reduce basement backups and the amount that we release combined sewer overflows – sewage combined with rain – into our rivers and Lake Michigan. Expanding and adequately maintaining both pipes and this “green infrastructure” means less damage, clearer streets, and cleaner water to drink, use and recreate in.
As our region continues to grow, more concrete and impervious surface will exacerbate the stress of climate change on our communities. This pressure will demand, and hopefully inspire more, partnerships between agencies, communities, businesses and non-profits, to retrofit our communities with better technology. Conscientious development and redevelopment won’t be enough. We will need more programs, like Space to Grow, which transforms Chicago Public School campuses in disadvantaged neighborhoods that flood into vibrant green outdoor learning places that can hold upward of 750,000 gallons per storm event. Likewise, farmers can implement practices on their land that not only provide healthy food, but also stabilize the health of soil and improve ecosystem services like flood mitigation. Learn more about low-impact and sustainable design.
Space to Grow and conservation practices on farmland are both great examples of how protecting existing landscapes can provide a multitude of ecosystems service benefits. For example, restoring land to high quality prairie is proven to be an $8 to $1 return, mitigating flooding, sequestering carbon, and lowering temperatures in urban heat islands. With increasing pressure to develop, it will be ever more important that our development and transportation infrastructure complements rather than erodes our finite open space.
While good work is underway, we must step up our efforts to mitigate flooding and other climate change impacts for the sake of generation to come.
Photo: the Space to Grow schoolyard at Chicago’s Wadsworth Elementary
For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for protecting clean water and our region’s waterways. Learn more about our efforts to address climate change in the Chicago region.
This post was updated on July 12, 2019.
On May 6, the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released their summary of an upcoming 1,500-page report on the state of biodiversity on Earth. The findings of the report are sobering and paint a bleak view for one million wildlife species now at risk of extinction due to human activity.
A three-year study by the IPBES finds that nature is experiencing an ‘unprecedented’ decline. This decline threatens terrestrial and aquatic species — including birds, insects, amphibians, mammals, trees, plants, marine life, and terrestrial life — and erodes the social and economic foundations of human civilization. It also finds unequivocally that human activities are to blame, especially ones that drive land use change, species exploitation, climate change, pollution, and competition from invasive species.
Some especially astonishing facts revealed by this study include:
- Three-fourths of the planet’s land-based habitat, and two-thirds of its ocean habitat, has been significantly altered by humans;
- One-third of the planet’s land and three-fourths of its freshwater are used by agriculture; and
- The footprint of urban areas more than doubled since 1992.
The report from the UN reminds us again that as a planet, our current efforts to protect nature are nowhere near enough. Without ‘transformational changes’, the situation will worsen.
But that doesn’t have to be our future.
Openlands believes that nature is vital to all humans, and so we have an obligation to sustain nature not only for its own sake but also for our own wellbeing. To counter these troubling global trends, Openlands acts regionally to advance changes that are models for transformations which safeguard our region’s wildlife, sustain human communities, and support a healthy equilibrium between them.
- Our work to establish greenway corridors and our landscape-scale land protection at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie set the stage for wildlife to migrate and flourish.
- Ecological restoration projects, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve and our school gardens programs also aim to transform human-impacted places into areas where wildlife can thrive again.
- We help private landowners place conservation easements on their property to protect important natural habitat and we work with willing sellers to add new acreage and access to existing conservation areas.
- We work to build a climate-resilient region by taking steps to reduce the number of private cars and trucks on our roads, which includes opposing shortsighted highway projects that reinforce the automobile-focused status quo and proliferate our region’s use of fossil fuels.
- Forestry, clean water, and local food programs all provide education about our natural resources so that more residents of the Chicago region value and respect them.
And while we are leading the efforts to make our region the most livable region in the country, endangered wildlife is still facing threats today and needs your voice. Right now legislation in Springfield will undercut Illinois’ ability to protect its own endangered wildlife and instead defer critical decisions to the current Federal administration, an administration that’s made a point of showing its disregard for environmental protection.
Please ask your state legislators to reject this law that would prevent Illinois from protecting its own threatened and endangered species.
We are committed to keeping you informed of the latest news and how it impacts conservation in the Chicago region, and we need your help to keep pursuing the transformation changes needed to save our planet’s wildlife. We need your support now, more than ever, to sustain our work that connects people with nature in the Chicago region.
Photos: Bill Clow (top); Marty Hackl
Nestled into the north side of Chicago is one of the city’s best natural treasures, North Park Village Nature Center. The Nature Center is managed by the Chicago Park District, and thanks to the dedicated work of the volunteer network, this vibrant natural area is home to many different habitats, trails, and educational resources.
One of the Nature Center’s most popular programs is the annual collection of maple tree sap to produce maple syrup. For over 30 years, the Park District has offered the program to residents and volunteers to help them appreciate, care for, and learn about the site’s trees. But as these trees have aged, they’ve identified the need to plant new maples to continue this tradition.
To celebrate the Nature Center’s 40th anniversary, the Chicago Park District asked Openlands to assist with a planting of 40 sugar maples. On May 8, our Forestry Team assisted volunteers from North Park Village Nature Center and the Chicago Park District in the tree planting. Check out a video from the workday:
Since 2013, Openlands has worked with volunteers and the Chicago Park District to plant nearly 300 trees at North Park Village Nature Center as part of the Park District’s efforts to steward healthy habitats. It’s truly a spectacular community resource and we strongly encourage you to check it out.
Hikers, runners, and bikers will want to consider visiting DuPage County’s Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. This gorgeous setting is a great choice for a day spent outdoors exploring the site’s extensive trail system, vibrant habitats, and most of all, scenic views. Waterfall Glen is a short trip from downtown Chicago and a family-friendly destination in suburban Darien.
Waterfall Glen is managed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and open to the public year-round. The site is home to a 9.5-mile gravel trail system that winds through a hilly, wooded landscape, offering educational signage and opportunities to explore nature up close. If you’re not looking for a nearly 10-mile trip, however, don’t let the longer trail intimidate you. Waterfall Glen not only offers shorter trails throughout the preserve, but you can also make a nice trip out of the short walk from a parking area to two of the site’s most scenic areas, Rocky Glen Waterfall (pictured above) and Sawcreek Mill Bluff.
The main trail at Waterfall Glen is an approachable 9.5-mile gravel path and makes for a great workout whether you’re hiking, biking, walking, or trail-running. The main trail is mixed-use for pedestrians, bikes, and horseback riding, so be sure to share the path. The trails are also open in the winter for snowshoeing, walking, and cross-country skiing.
For the site’s natural beauty and recreation opportunities, Waterfall Glen is well worth your visit! Consider adding it to your trip this summer or check out all our recommendations for where to get outside in the region.
Photo: Patrick Williams
On Black Friday, the White House released the much anticipated Fourth National Climate Assessment, a sweeping Federal review of the impact of climate change on the natural environment, agriculture, human health, forests, transportation, and natural resources. The report, which was authored by scientists from 13 Federal agencies and climatologists from across the country, documents in explicit terms the changes to our climate that have already occurred in the United States.
The report paints a grim future for the country and the Midwest region, going so far as to declare that, “without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property, and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”
And all of this needs to be held in light of the United Nations’ 2018 Emissions Gap Report, released on November 27, which states that even at the current pace of emissions reductions, the world is falling far short of the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement.
Climate science can be cumbersome and reading about these reports no doubt will lead to some anxiety for many of us. But we want to prepare you with information and talking points so you can advocate for climate action right now.
“Species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species.”
Fourth National Climate Assessment, Chapter 21 — Midwest
On the whole, Illinois has actually fared somewhat well relative to the rest of the planet, which is to say that we are not experiencing the upsurge in natural disasters like the California wildfires, the devastating heatwaves in Australia, or the destructive hurricanes in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The changes we have felt are more subtle, and inaction will cause those changes to accelerate exponentially over the century.
1. It’s not too late to do something
One of the most important things to always keep in mind is that it is not too late to act. The 2015 Paris Agreement created a global framework wherein signatory countries would work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) — at that point, we must still expect significant changes in our climate, but we will avert catastrophe. Additionally, the Paris Agreement set the aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees (2.7 F) to create a type of safety net. There is still a chance that we can reach that goal.
2. Climate projections are viewed on a scale, and we can act to reduce and prevent some impacts
Climate change reports often present their findings with both a best case scenario and a worst case scenario. For the Chicago region, the worst case scenario is we end the century with a climate similar to that of present-day Dallas or Phoenix.
Both the Fourth National Climate Assessment and the landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued in October 2018 emphasize the importance of what are known as mitigation and adaptation tactics to address this crisis.
Mitigation is the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing efforts to pull greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Adaptation refers to the actions we can take to prepare for the impacts and reduce the risks of climate change.
Openlands believes our response to the threat of climate change must be two-fold, embracing both of these strategies, and using solutions based in nature to put carbon back in the ground. As Chicago’s regional land trust, Openlands is uniquely positioned to leverage land conservation with community climate action and to ensure that our region seizes the opportunity to pioneer innovative solutions to the climate crisis.
3. Forests and land conservation are more important than ever
Both the report from the Federal Government and IPCC stress the importance of forests and land conservation as central elements in preventing climate change from wreaking ecological devastation. Large, healthy woodlands with hardy native species and vast sweeping prairies filled with grasses and deep-rooted plants suck in and absorb massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere while providing havens for wildlife.
The National Climate Assessment states that, “species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species.” The good news is that so many of these risks can be avoided today.
For one, we know how to protect clean water resources: we know that plants and open space can manage stormwater, removing harmful pollution and keeping adjacent waterways healthy. Trees in urban areas not only pull pollution and carbon from the air, but also lower temperatures on the ground, but across the region we need to care for these resources better and plant many more trees. And we know that restoring natural areas leads to healthier landscapes that mitigate greenhouse gases more efficiently. Ecological restoration has additional benefits beyond absorbing carbon, which include flood relief, pollution reduction, controlling invasive species, improved water quality, and better habitat for wildlife.
Focusing our efforts on protecting existing forest preserves and parks, restoring natural areas, and using these nature-based solutions all help mitigate emissions and adapt our neighborhoods and communities to a changing climate.
4. Heat, Humidity, and Human Health
Unfortunately, we have to expect that increased temperatures will unleash new complications to human health in our region. Higher temperatures and higher humidity increase the risk for heat stress, the ferocity of storms, mold and fungal disease such as oak wilt, and the potential for poor air quality resulting from smog. We can expect to see these hazards affecting those with asthma and chronic health conditions.
In both the best and worst case scenarios, we can expect greater occurrence of painful 100-degree days. This undoubtedly will result in higher utility bills and strain on transportation infrastructure. Increased heat and humidity will further impact human labor, particularly in sectors tied closely with the climate such as agriculture.
5. Agriculture in the Midwest is at Risk
The United States produces nearly $330 billion in agricultural commodities annually. Agriculture is vulnerable to direct impacts on crops and livestock from changing climate conditions and extreme weather events, as well as indirect impacts like new insects and diseases. While heat stress on crops in the Midwest has been minimal, increased spring rainfall has made planting more challenging and wet conditions in the fall can impact the timing and quality of a harvest.
Central to every study of the agricultural impacts of climate change is the assumption that farmland will always be available. While more than 80% of land in Illinois is farmland, keep in mind that we have some of the best soil in the world for growing food. We need to think of this soil as a key natural resource — and protect it like one.
Openlands is working right now to ensure that the farmland in our region stays as healthy farmland, rather than being sold off for another big box store. We also work with farmers to implement adaptive practices on their land. Integrating native prairie plants into row crops, for example, has been shown to reduce sediment and nutrient loss from fields, as well as improve biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as flood control and carbon sequestration.
6. Water Levels in the Great Lakes
There have been lots of news stories this year showing how water levels in Lake Michigan are at near-historic highs and there’s a temptation to claim prematurely a link to climate change. The reality is that we are not sure what is going to happen with water levels in the future. We can expect the Great Lakes region will get warmer and to experience warmer winters, meaning there will be greater evaporation from the lakes year-round. But we are also expected to receive far more precipitation than we have historically; therefore, water inputs to the lakes will be higher. We are unsure how climate change will impact the stable cycle of evaporation and precipitation that has governed the Great Lakes for millennia. You can read more about that here.
7. Climate change is felt most by the most vulnerable
Much like poverty, disease, crime, or debt, climate change can affect anyone, but the effects are concentrated among those who are most vulnerable. Children, elderly adults, and frontline communities will feel the health impacts of a changing climate the most. Frontline communities are often low-income and communities of color and tend to face disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards, pollution (such as congested highways or power plants), inequitable access to green space, and poor air quality leading to higher rates of asthma.
In 1963, Openlands was founded as a social justice organization charged with the purpose of preserving green space because nature is vital to the well-being of all people. Since that time we have steered our region towards sustainability and now we are committed to guiding our region through climate change. We can’t do it without you.
All the information in this blog post can be found in greater detail in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which again was written and reviewed by 13 Federal agencies. The report is presented online in a user-friendly manner; you can find information on particular regions, issues, or themes; and we strong encourage you to take some time to read through the report. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the chilly morning of Saturday, October 13, Openlands teamed-up with partners on Chicago’s Southeast Side for a tree planting at Indian Ridge Marsh. Joining us at the planting were team members from the Student Conservation Association (SCA), Audubon Great Lakes, the Chicago Park District, The Wetlands Initiative (TWI), and the U Chicago Lab School.
Indian Ridge Marsh is a 154-acre native marsh and wet prairie habitat in the Calumet region. It sits as part of an extraordinary network of adjacent natural areas on the Southeast Side including Wolf Lake, the Calumet River, Big Marsh, and Lake Calumet. The Calumet Wetlands Working Group — which includes The Wetlands Institute, the Chicago Park District, and Audubon Great Lakes — has been restoring Indian Ridge Marsh since 2016 as part of an important conservation effort that will inform restoration and management of remnant wetland sites across the Calumet area.
Healthy and stewarded natural areas are part of the green mosaic of vibrant, resilient urban environments. They help clean our air, manage stormwater, house our region’s biodiversity, and provide a place of respite from our hectic urban centers. Due to pressure of invasive species, climate change, and development, it is essential to actively manage these open spaces, with native tree planting as a key component.
Volunteers spent their morning planting trees and shrubs in the natural areas at Indian Ridge Marsh. We planted bur oaks, swamp white oaks, and hop-hornbeam, as well as hazelnut trees, hackberry trees, dogwoods, and more! The morning was organized as part of the Openlands TreePlanters Grants program, which provides communities in Chicago and southern Cook County plant new trees in their neighborhood.
“A big thank you to our partners at the Park District, SCA, TWI, Audubon Great Lakes, and Lab School for providing crews, equipment, knowledge, and enthusiasm to plant these trees,” said Michael Dugan, Openlands Director of Forestry. “This was truly a collaborative effort of conservation organizations, stewards, and volunteers in our city and region.”
You can check out our photos from the community tree planting below. If you’re interested in volunteering with Openlands tree planting program, check out our upcoming events here. Our applications for the Spring 2019 TreePlanters Grants will open in January. For more information, please contact email@example.com.
If you’ve been outside to a natural area of pretty much any size in Illinois, chances are you’ve seen it: walls of a shrubby plant completely blocking off trees, plants, and flowers and overrunning woodland areas. This is common buckthorn and it’s our region’s most destructive invasive plant.
Common buckthorn is not a species native to the Midwest. It was first brought to North America by European settlers to use as hedging material. While they quickly realized it spread rampantly, it was too late, and buckthorn was unleashed on the land.
Buckthorn forms its leaves early in the spring and keeps them late into the fall, creating dense layer of shade that helps it out-compete native plants. It can be so prevalent in woodlands and forests that it will completely replace existing understory plants, like native wildflowers. It exudes a chemical that harms frogs and toads, it wipes out beneficial soil life, and it leads to erosion.
Buckthorn is a major problem and it has spread to far too many gardens and yards, so it should be removed wherever possible. So let’s get started with some tips.
Making the Right Identification
Buckthorn is easily identifiable, especially later in the fall, as its leaves stay green after most trees have lost their leaves for the season. Buckthorn’s simple leaves are elliptical in shape, about three inches long, and have veins that curve toward the tip.
Twigs often have thorny projections toward the tips, hence the common name. Cut buckthorn branches reveal the species’ yellow sapwood and orange heartwood, which is a useful way to confirm its identification.
Buckthorn’s habit varies from a small tree to 25 feet in height, to a shorter, broader shrub. It often grows in thick stands in the understory, crowding out other species and thus diminishing area diversity. It is very shade-tolerant, which also helps buckthorn out-compete native shrubs and tree saplings. Buckthorn also readily re-sprouts when cut, making it difficult to remove. Birds will the dark fruit, which contributes to its pervasiveness.
Many desirable native shrubs can be confused with buckthorn including American plum, black chokeberry, hawthorn and nannyberry. The easiest time of year for identification is late autumn, when native shrubs have lost their leaves but buckthorn remains full of green leaves.
Photo: Gary Fewless via Wisconsin Wetlands Association
Removing Buckthorn Properly
Take a moment to size up your population of buckthorn on your property: where is its heart and in which direction is it spreading? It’s usually helpful to work from the least-infested area toward the most-infested area, but if you’re protecting a high-quality area, such as a stand of oak trees, work from there outward.
Hand-pull small plants when soil is damp. An advantage of hand-pulling is that it removes the roots, which reduces resprouting. Use a Pullerbear, Extractigator or similar tool for stems up to 2 inches. Cut larger stems and trunks with a loppers, hand
saw or, when necessary, chainsaw. You’ll want to protect your body with goggles, thick gloves, sturdy boots, etc.
Herbicide immediately and very carefully after cutting. Choose the right herbicide for the setting and time of year, and follow all label instructions. Apply carefully to the stump with a disposable paint brush. With large infestations, adding a dye to the herbicide will help you keep track of which stems were treated. And if you do use herbicides, don’t let it touch any plants you want to keep.
Be sure you have a plan for disposing of the waste, too, whether that’s burning or chipping. In general, it is best to leave noxious weeds like buckthorn on-site. Even dead plants can spread seeds. If chipping or burning aren’t an option, contact yard waste facilities to see if they accept noxious weeds.
One last tip: talk to your neighbors. For one, you may want to mention why you’re cutting brush, and chances are they’ll have buckthorn on their property too. If all the neighbors are removing it from their property, everyone has a better chance of success. Plus, you can team-up on neighborhood workdays and many hands will make light work.
Planting an Alternative
It’s understandable that you may want to keep a sense a privacy around your home. Luckily, there are several native species you can plant that will provide similar aesthetic features and provide brilliant fall colors while giving a better home to birds and wildlife.
We recommend the following buckthorn alternatives:
- Hazelnut or filbert (Corylus americana)
- Spicebush (Lindera benzion)
- Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
- Nannyberry viburnum (Viburnum lentago)
- Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Photos via Possibility Place Nursery and John Raithel
Getting the Help You Need
This might sound like a lot of work. In some cases, it certainly can be, but you’re making an important commitment to nature and the environment. To keep big jobs from overwhelming you, simply draw an imaginary “line in the sand,” and pledge to remove any buckthorn that crosses the line. Another option is waiting until winter when plants are dormant and soils are frozen. This will keep you from trampling any flowers or plant life you do want on your property.
If you’re unsure what you’re looking at, Openlands can help. Through the Lands in Harmony program, you can spend a hour walking your land with one of our expert ecologists who will help identify the natural features on your property, assess tactics for controlling invasives like buckthorn, and recommend ways to implement conservation-friendly practices. Learn more about the program and sign up now for a free property consultation.
Pack a lunch and take a trip back in time, exploring the landscapes, habitats, and views found in our region long ago! Located in the south suburbs and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Grassland is an exceptional display of the expansive prairies that used to stretch across the region. More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers left behind this rolling landscape and made Orland Grassland one of the higher elevation points in Cook County. On a clear day you can even spot the Chicago Skyline!
Orland Grassland is one of the largest grassland habitats in all of Cook County. Starting in 2002, this 960-acre preserve has been transformed from farmland back into a grassland complex with prairies, wetlands, open ponds, oak savannas, and woodlands. Openlands helped restore the landscape at Orland Grassland and today, much of the preserve is enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve system and it is a designated important bird area by Audubon Society.
A five-mile paved trail rings Orland Grassland with several unpaved trails winding through the restoration areas. The south unit of Orland Grassland also featured a 1.6-mile paved trail if you’re looking for a shorter trail (or a longer extension of the main trail). The unpaved trails are marked with handmade signs created by Cub Scout Troop #372 of Orland Park. Be sure to check out the interactive trail map from Forest Preserves of Cook County before your visit.
If you’ve visited the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve recently, you might have noticed some changes happening along the lakefront due to high water levels in the lake. It’s called erosion, and we’ll be the first to admit that it’s pretty bad right now. Erosion is a natural process that gradually removes soil, rock, and sediment from wherever it’s been sitting on the land such as a beach or a riverbank. Erosion at the Lakeshore Preserve is so substantial at the moment that we even had to remove a lakefront art installation to prevent it from washing away into the Great Lakes!
Before we say any more though, please trust us that the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is still completely safe for you to visit. You can still enjoy the sights, sounds, trails, and art installations. We ask that you stay on the paved trails and be sure to keep your pets leashed and off the beach areas. If you’re an avid science geek, an expert geohydrologist, or even someone who just enjoys walking along the lakefront, we encourage you to visit the Lakeshore Preserve and see with your own eyes how the Great Lakes are shaping the surrounding lands.
You may have read in the news that water levels in the Great Lakes are at historic highs – while they’re not currently the highest we’ve ever recorded, it’s still pretty significant news. There is no easy answer for why that is, and it’s affecting shorelines in a number of ways.
Water levels in the Great Lakes have historically fluctuated. Low levels in the late 1960s were followed by record highs in the mid-1980s. The water levels of the Great Lakes are pretty much determined by simple cycles of ice cover, precipitation, and evaporation. In the scheme of things, human withdrawal is actually rather insignificant. (Here’s a fantastic article explaining that in more detail.)
Ice coverage in the winter months is a significant determining factor of water levels. When there is more ice coverage, less water will evaporate from the lakes. As our climate changes, the Great Lakes region is predicted to experience greater fluctuations in winter temperatures: winters could be warmer-than-average or colder-than-average, or a week of low 20s followed by a week in the high 50s could become normal, all affecting ice coverage. For example, lake levels were lower between 2008-2010 than currently since the last few winters have been generally colder. The colder winters led to higher ice coverage, meaning less wintertime evaporation.
In terms of climate change, the region is also predicted to receive much more precipitation than normal, meaning water inputs to the Great Lakes will be higher. We cannot say one way or another how the stable cycles of evaporation and precipitation, cycles that have been steady for thousands of years, will be affected. Increased evaporation and precipitation could balance each other out – leaving the lakes at similar water levels to what has been historically observed – or one process could completely outweigh the other, causing a sharp rise or fall in water levels. While it would be inaccurate to use climate change as an explanation for the current lake levels, we can expect that in a changed climate we will generally experience more fluctuation in water levels as periods of evaporation outweigh precipitation and vice versa.
The point is that the water levels in Lake Michigan have physical impacts felt up and down its shoreline. Along this part of the lake currents typically flow north to south. Since European settlement, the Illinois shoreline has been altered in a number of ways for a variety of reasons, all of which interrupt these currents in site-specific ways and regionally. The impact of various alterations, when combined with high water levels, can cause erosion even to reinforced areas like at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.
Along the North Shore, we have many, many artificial alterations to the shore including hundreds of metal groynes jutting into the lake (pictured above). When they were installed much earlier in the 20th century, these groynes were intended to prevent erosion, but they were installed with an incomplete understanding of on-shore, near-shore, and off-shore conditions and currents, exacerbating the erosion we see today.
The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve does have many of these metal groynes, but also large revetment rocks and some of the latest coastal engineering strategies, all intended to reduce erosion. While we are working on a solution to stabilize the beach and toe of the bluff, erosion still persists. The significant erosion we see at the Lakeshore Preserve is occurring in places that have no erosion control or in areas where the water level is simply so high, it is washing away soils behind the control measures. It remains a fact of life that erosion is a natural process and it cannot be prevented altogether, no matter the strategy you try.
With the traditional groyne solution, we see patterns of erosion that follow the southerly current (above in purple). As waves reach the shore (above in blue), sand and soil is carried away and is deposited immediately north of the next groyne (above in brown). This is called littoral drift. The satellite image above shows how wedges of beach have formed over time in between groynes. The immediate effect of this pattern is fragmentation of shoreline areas like the Lakeshore Preserve, Illinois Beach State Park, or other popular beaches of the North Shore.
If you’re a homeowner on the Lakefront, this may all sound rather concerning. There are a few things you can do: contact your city council and tell them you’re concerned about coastal erosion. There is significant attention being paid to the issue and support for North Shore municipal councils to develop a comprehensive plan for coastal areas, but statements of support from the public will aid the projects and implementation. Keep in mind that regional plans like this do take time, careful monitoring, and significant analysis to find the right solutions, but there are some more immediate steps you can take.
Try to prevent any man-made alterations to the shoreline on your property if possible. Finally, reducing runoff from rain and stormwater will help reduce erosion. Make sure that surface runoff flowing over your property is either captured by a rain garden, is diverted directly into sewers, or is piped down into the lake. Rain gardens are an excellent solution because they capture rainwater where it falls, preventing bluff and ravine erosion and keeping sediments and pollutants out of the Great Lakes.
View more resources for ravine homeowners and technical experts. We also encourage you to read through the excellent resources offered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program. Homeowners looking for initial recommendations can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a lakefront landowner, Openlands is also concerned about this erosion. The Lakeshore Preserve is home to several natural bluffs, and at the base of one of these – where there is no erosion control – we have been seeing some substantial erosion for the past year. As erosion has increased, the natural slope of the bluff has been affected and we expect this to continue until the bluff finds its angle of repose again. An angle of repose is the steepest angle the slope of the bluff can take while the soil remains stable. The picture above shows recent conditions: when the slope holds its natural angle, it should stretch to the waters edge with some beach to protect it and without that significant dropoff at the base shown above. The bluff here will find its slope again, but will continue to reshape higher up the slope and upland areas as it does. Once again, erosion is a natural process and below you can see its effects on two sites at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve over a year’s time.
Click on each of the images below to see the impact on the bluff from August 2017 – May 2018.
Click each image below to see the changes to the Lake Prism Art installation from May 2017 – May 2018.
We aim for the Lakeshore Preserve to function as a learning laboratory as a way to monitor changes in our climate and landscapes, and that it will serve as a model for communities and landowners along the North Shore. To that end, we have been working since the summer of 2018 with researchers from the Illinois State Geological Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to monitor the erosion. Using drone footage and images, researchers will analyze erosional forces and sand migration over the course of eight months via a series of digital 3D models, which will map changes to the bluffs and beach. New studies like this are needed to build a more-complete and in-depth understanding of the natural forces at work.
As a component of the learning laboratory, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is the second site on the North Shore to receive this kind of study, and the data will be tested in several ways to provide local municipalities, agencies, and elected officials with the most useful interpretation to address their communities’ unique needs.
Changes like erosion are reminders that landscapes are alive, and that they can be altered by both humans and nature, so we need to be conscious of our impact and work to restore landscapes wherever possible. Again, we encourage you to visit the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve; it is a spectacular example of the ravine and bluff ecosystems unique to the North Shore and it is open to the public year-round. Begin planning your visit.