By Tessa Anderson & Kiersten McCutcheon
Published January 11th, 2023
The rate at which our climate is changing today is unprecedented, causing extreme and unpredictable weather conditions across the globe.
The coasts of the Great Lakes are home to diverse and beautiful ecosystems that people have long relied upon to meet their needs. Many Canadians rely on the Great Lakes in some way, whether for fishing, transporting goods, enjoying a day at the beach, participating in traditional/spiritual activities, or using them as a source of drinking water. These cherished coasts are under threat from the impacts of our changing climate. We now face colder winters, warmer summers, more intense storms, heavier rains, and more severe droughts.
Coastal communities endure the brunt of these impacts. Efforts to protect properties and accommodate coastal areas have been an uphill battle as water levels continue to rise and erode shorelines. Existing urban infrastructure like storm drains and residential properties are more at risk from these rapid environmental changes. Traditional shoreline protections like stone armouring and breakwalls have also proved ineffective at providing long-term protection against these severe and frequent storm events.
Nature-based solutions, which focus on working together with nature, are a proven alternative strategy to address these complex challenges. Great Lakes coastal dunes are a uniquely resilient ecosystem. Because they both trap and release sand, they can withstand many of the impacts we are experiencing. As lake levels fluctuate, dunes will grow or give back sand to the lake while continuing to provide benefits to shoreline communities and ecosystems.
Sand Dune Quick Facts:
provide unique habitat for wildlife, including many at-risk species;
protect property from storm events and costly damages;
ensure the shoreline is resilient to climate change; and
can replenish themselves over time.
From 2019 - 2022, Niagara Coastal and our partners have been restoring coastal dunes across the north shore of Lake Erie.
We prioritized the restoration of coastal dunes at Bay Beach, Nickel Beach, Lorraine Bay, and Waverly Beach. These locations were selected based on a variety of factors including;
Historical Ecosystem - the site was historically a coastal dune ecosystem of value that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed;
Ecosystem Benefits - coastal species benefit from additional habitat; and
Public Benefit - protections against storm events are provided for infrastructure and homes.
Each location prioritized for restoration once supported a resilient coastal dune ecosystem. However, compounding stressors have damaged them so severely that the benefits once provided to wildlife and the community have been diminished or lost entirely.
The restoration of Bay Beach began in the spring of 2021. In one year and four months, Bay Beach in the Town of Fort Erie was transformed from a flat, sandy beach lacking coastal plants, to an ecologically diverse juvenile coastal dune.
Our restoration efforts at Bay Beach resulted in 127 m3 of sand accumulation within the restoration area from October 2021 - August 2022. Native beach grass, which was planted in 2021, was thriving and has spread throughout the area as of the Summer of 2022.
Beach Grass Quick Facts:
Beach grasses are incredible plants capable of building and restoring coastal dunes. The grass assists in developing new dunes by acting as a windbreak, trapping and depositing sand in the area. Beach grasses also create a network of roots throughout the dune, stitching a “net” which holds the sand in place. Planting locally harvested native beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata ssp. Champlainensis) is one of the best strategies for stabilizing a coastal dune on the Great Lakes and providing protection for the shoreline against wind and wave activity.
We installed a fence to limit pedestrian disturbance, which facilitated the migration of native coastal plants into the area.
Species such as American Sea Rocket, Evening Primrose, Winged Pigweed and a provincially rare species of Bugseed have all been observed on the newly established dune.
Sand Fence Quick Facts:
Installing sand fencing along an eroding coastal dune is an effective restoration approach that limits further sediment loss from wind and wave activity. The sand fence acts as a wind-break, much in the same way that beach grass and other coastal vegetation does. As wind-carrying airborne sand hits the leeward side of the fence, it slows down and deposits sand inside the fence line. Although dunes can regenerate naturally with time and limited disturbance, installing sand fencing accelerates the accumulation of windblown sand, forming a new dune in a fraction of the time.
Restoration of Nickel Beach’s dune began in August of 2022. After just two months, a new dune was starting to form.
By the end of October 2022, the 600 meter stretch of dune grew nearly one foot in elevation. We installed a fence to restrict pedestrian and vehicle access to the sensitive dune habitat, and coastal plants rapidly moved into the area.
Based on previously successful projects, we expected sand accumulation to continue throughout the winter season. Niagara Coastal and our partners planned to populate the area with native plants in Spring 2023. Unfortunately, restoration progress was impacted by a severe storm event.
Winter Storm Elliott: The Storm of a Generation
On December 23, 2022, a generational winter storm, dubbed “Winter Storm Elliott,” hit Southern Ontario with brute force. The storm lasted for days and most heavily impacted southern areas of the Niagara Region, specifically the coastal municipalities of Fort Erie, Wainfleet and Port Colborne.
Two weeks after the storm, coastal residents and townships across the north shore are still working to clear debris and ice; an exceptional challenge when many of these areas remain flooded. Fortunately, locations along the shoreline that have adequate setbacks from the water were damaged to a lesser extent.
Bay Beach in Fort Erie is a wide beach, and all facilities are set back over 40 meters from the water. The established juvenile dune provides a natural land barrier between the beach and local infrastructure, protecting the site by absorbing wave energy. While the dune experienced minor damage from the storm, the playground and washroom behind the dune were not damaged. Neighbouring areas like Nickel Beach in Port Colborne were not so lucky.
In contrast to Bay Beach, the restored coastal dunes of Nickel Beach were in their infancy- only four months old as Winter Storm Elliott hit. These dunes were not established and lacked the native vegetation necessary to stabilize the dune. This combination of factors provided almost no buffer to the coast against such a volatile storm. Damage at this location was significant; mature trees were splintered and uprooted, and once gentle slopes eroded into vertical bluffs. Wind and wave action carried away the sand, cutting the bank of the dune by more than 15 metres in some locations.
Winter Storm Elliott not only left a scar on the landscape, but also highlighted the importance of avoiding the shoreline when planning for urban expansion. Shorelines are highly dynamic ecosystems, meaning they change naturally over time. Adequate setbacks from the water allow these natural processes to occur without risking property damage, human lives, and unnecessary expenses. When avoidance is not possible, an adaptive strategy should be prioritized to reduce risks and allow for continued use of the site. Adaptation strategies include raising the foundation of a flood-prone building, or building flood barriers like dikes. Climate adaptation strategies are helpful tools for building ecological resilience, but they can only get us so far during high-energy storm events.
Installing traditional shoreline protection methods is the most common approach to managing shorelines throughout the Great Lakes. This is a reactive strategy known as shoreline hardening. However, strategies like armourstone and breakwalls have proved ineffective at providing long-term protection against these severe and frequent storm events. Shoreline hardening is extremely costly and only provides a short-term solution.
When avoiding, accommodating or protecting property is not possible, landowners and residents may be forced to retreat from the shore; relocating buildings to a less vulnerable area.
Experts agree that protecting and restoring nature-based shorelines is the best management strategy as we attempt to adapt to a changing climate. Sadly, nature-based shorelines take years to re-establish and become a functioning construct within the greater ecosystem. This challenge is amplified by the impacts of our changing climate that are hitting the coast and slowing coastal restoration success. The best way to fight climate change TODAY is by working together collaboratively to mitigate our impacts and reduce carbon emissions.
As a shared community resource, it will take a community of people passionate about protecting the Great Lakes to ensure they can continue to be used to meet our needs.
Here are some simple ways you can make a lasting difference.
Protect existing forest and wetland ecosystems
Restore degraded ecosystems
Promote natural shorelines
Participate in your local council
Minimize fossil fuel consumption
Volunteer with Niagara Coastal to help track coastal changes!
The Niagara Coastal Community Collaborative is committed to understanding and improving the health of Lake Erie’s coast, in collaboration with eNGOs, government, landowners, academia, and community members.
We work on three ecological priorities— nature-based shorelines, healthy beaches, and habitat and species. We are dedicated to optimizing and expanding local action to build a healthy and resilient Lake Erie coastal ecosystem that supports the community's economic, recreational, environmental, and health and well-being needs.
Photos by Tessa Anderson & Kiersten McCutcheon unless stated otherwise.