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U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2009-1042

Prepared in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Coastal Resources Management Program

National Assessment of Historical Shoreline Change: A Pilot Study of Historical Coastal Bluff Retreat in the Great Lakes, Erie, Pennsylvania

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By Cheryl J. Hapke, Shamus Malone, and Meredith Kratzmann

Published 2009

Actively failing bluff along Lake Erie, PA coastline.
Actively failing bluff along Lake Erie, Pa., coastline. Photograph by Shamus Malone, Pennsylvania Coastal Resources Management Program.

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Coastal bluff retreat is a chronic problem along many high-relief coastlines in the United States. As coastal populations continue to grow and community infrastructures are threatened by erosion, there is increased demand for accurate information regard­ing trends and rates of bluff retreat. There is also a need for a comprehensive analysis that is consistent from one coastal region to another. To address these national needs, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), as part of the National Assessment of Coastal Change Hazards Project, conducted a pilot study of bluff retreat along the Lake Erie, Pa., coastline to assess the feasibility of undertaking a larger, multi-state analysis in the Great Lakes region. This report provides an overview of the pilot-study location and bluff geomorphology, the data sources and methodology, results of the analysis, and a discussion of the feasibility of undertaking a similar analysis along eroding bluffs in other Great Lakes states.

This pilot study is part of an ongoing effort by the USGS to provide a comprehensive analysis of historical shoreline change and cliff and bluff retreat along open-ocean coastlines of the conterminous United States and parts of Hawaii, Alaska, and the Great Lakes. One purpose of the work is to develop standard, repeatable methods for mapping and analyzing coastal change so that systematic and consistent periodic updates of coastal erosion can be made nationally.

Bluff-retreat evaluations are conducted by comparing the location of a historical bluff edge digitized from aerial photographs with those of recent bluff edges interpreted from both aerial photographs and lidar topographic surveys. The historical bluff edge is from 1938, whereas the more recent bluff edges are from 1998 and 2006 lidar data. Long-term (68-year) rates of retreat are calculated using the available bluff-edge data.  The rates of retreat presented in this report represent conditions from the 1930s to 1998/2006, and are not intended for predicting future bluff-edge positions or rates of retreat. The report presents bluff-retreat rates for 32 km of a 60-km stretch along the Lake Erie, Pa., coastline. Data are discontinuous due to gaps in source data and lack of continuous bluffs.

The average rate of coastal bluff retreat for the Lake Erie, Pa., bluffs was -0.3 ± 0.1 m/yr (retreat rates are presented as negative numbers in this report), based on rates averaged from 1,595 individual transects. Retreat rates generally were lowest where bedrock outcrops are exposed as the basal unit in the bluff. The highest rates are associated with anthropogenic activities, including jetties that trap littoral sediment, depleting a source of material for the natural replenishment of protective beaches downcoast, and extensive irrigation of farmlands on the tops of the bluffs, which can destabilize bluffs by enhancing ground-water outflow.


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