Coastal Engineering
Natural coastal hazards along the Great Lakes affect municipalities, homeowners and businesses. As the demands of coastal development and investment continue to increase, so do the possibilities for increased loss of valuable property, habitat and life. Sound coastal engineering information on coastal erosion, waves, rip currents, changing water levels, flooding potentials, bluff instability and shoreline best-management practices are all needed. Wisconsin Sea Grant meets that need.


A Career Solving Wicked, Sticky and Humongous Coastal Engineering Problems
Gene Clark, Wisconsin Sea Grant's coastal engineer, is planning to retire in 2019. Read about his standout accomplishments, which include the Sea Caves Watch Project, the freshwater steel corrosion issue in Lake Superior and the beneficial reuse of material dredged from Great Lakes harbors. We will miss him! Read more...

The Life of a Coastal Engineer

Gene Clark, Go-To-Guy
Wisconsin Sea Grant's coastal engineer, Gene Clark, tackles a wide variety of coastal issues and problems. Read more...

Guiding Principles on Coastal Engineering

Guiding Principles on Coastal Engineering
Wisconsin Sea Grant offers nonbiased, science-based technical assistance to address coastal engineering challenges. Learn more about the program's guiding principle. Read more...

Coastal Processes

Waves and Nearshore Currents
Different types of waves and currents mean different things along a shoreline. Learn more, and learn how these waves and currents form. Read more...

Storm Surges, Seiches and Edge Waves
There are temporary rises in water levels that can cause flooding and shore damage. There are two main types: storm surges and seiches (say-chez, or say-shes). A rare third type is an edge wave. Read more...

Climate Change Models
Models about climate change predict adjustments in Great Lakes water levels. Read more...

Great Lakes Hydrologic Model Response To Global Circulation Models
Explanation for the predictions of water level changes that are based on models. Read more...

Great Lakes Storm of 2001 - Lake Superior
Details on a powerful November 2001 storm.

Coastal Hazards

Coastal Erosion
Coastal erosion is a natural process. The land contributes coarse sediments of sand and gravel to re-supply beaches that have lost material alongshore to other locations, or offshore to lakebed depths beyond the reach of storm waves. The land contributes fine sediments that move offshore to settle in the deep basins. Read more...

Coastal Bluff Failure
Coastal bluff failure is a serious issue on the Great Lakes. The most significant mechanisms: wave erosion, lakebed erosion and rainfall. Read more...

Coastal Flooding
High water level periods on the Great Lakes tend to be more prolonged than such periods on rivers and smaller lakes. Read more...

Lakebed Erosion
Lakebed erosion seems to be a continuous process, even though major storms probably cause a lot of the erosion. Even during low water level years and times of small wave conditions, the abrasion goes on. Significant lakebed erosion occurs from the shoreline out to water depths of roughly 34 feet. Read more...

Lake Levels

Video Archive of 2013 Lake Level Workshop
Wisconsin Sea Grant presented at a community workshop on Great Lakes water levels in Milwaukee. Read more...

Lake Superior
Charts that show the average annual water levels of Lake Superior recorded since 1860. Read more...

Lake Michigan & Lake Huron
Charts that show the average annual water levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron recorded since 1860. Read more...

Lake Erie
Charts that show the average annual water levels of Lake Erie recorded since 1860. Read more...

Lake Ontario
Charts that show the average annual water levels of Lake Ontario recorded since 1860. Read more...

Minimum/Maximum Levels
Tables that display the minimum and maximum water levels recorded for each of the Great Lakes. Read more...

Lake Michigan Coastal Bluff Erosion

Lake Michigan Coastal Bluffs
With significant input from people who live and work around Lake Michigan's coastal bluff's, continuing work seeks to formulate policy and management recommendations for the coastal features.  Read more...

Rip Currents

Rip Current Process
Rip currents are generally narrow but can be dangerous to swimmers. There are specific conditions under which they can occur. Read more...

Coastal Construction Setbacks

Construction Setbacks - An Introduction
Construction along coastal land means paying attention to many factors, including setbacks. Read more...

Minimum Setback Distance

Resources for Property Owners

Great Lakes Coastal Engineering Firms and Contractors
Wisconsin Sea Grant is providing a list of Great Lakes coastal engineering and/or bluff stability consulting firms as a resource for property owners looking for professionals who can provide expertise and services. This list is not meant to be an endorsement of any firm nor is it all-inclusive. Read more...


Measuring Bluff Erosion
New technical approaches help people understand how and why bluffs erode and slide away, threatening property and endangering lives. The work is supported by the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute. Read more...

Confronting Coastal Erosion and Flooding
Adam Bechle is learning to help coastal residents in Wisconsin confront coastal erosion and flooding. Bechle is the is the new J. Keillor Wisconsin Coastal Management and Wisconsin Sea Grant Fellow. Read more...

Increasing Safety at Sea Caves
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has become a world-class destination for sea kayaking, but some of the most popular attractions can also be treacherous. Under certain conditions, the sea caves can quickly change from awe-inspiring to terrifying. A new Sea Grant system improves safety.

UW Sea Grant researchers, with funding from other sources as well, have developed a website that aggregates wave conditions in Lake Superior in and around the Apostle Islands sea caves. Visit


Engineering Students Dive into Field Work
Wisconsin Sea Grant Coastal Engineering Specialist Gene Clark describes slope stability, erosion and other coastal issues as students learn to deploy and operate instruments. Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. Chin Wu conducted the class, called "Exploration and Investigation of Coastal Processes in the Great Lakes and Inland Lakes." Read more...

Coastal Solutions

Coastal Shore Protection Structures

Explore Great Lakes processes on shorelines through this fact sheet from Sea Grant’s coastal engineering specialist. He then offers thoughts on structures that interact in the best possible ways with those natural processes.

Construction Setbacks
Selection of a setback distance from a coastal bluff or bank is one of the most important decisions a homeowner or builder can make when building a coastal home. Read more...

Shore Protection Structures
Explore a list of past and present guides to designing and building shore protection structures on the Great Lakes and other coastal shores. Read more...

Infiltration Intakes
Great Lakes water infiltration intakes are a vital part of coastal water-supply infrastructure. Low lake levels and biological invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels have created many problems with their design use capacity. Read more...


A Comprehensive Analysis of Sediment Delivery to Lake Michigan From Coastal Bluffs in Southeastern Wisconsin

Lucas Zoet, UW-Madison, (608) 262-1921,
J. Elmo Rawling, UW-Extension

High lake levels are reducing beach area along the Lake Michigan coastline and allowing wave action to erode the bases of coastal bluffs at the highest rate of the past 30 years. Sediment budget calculations have shown that bluff erosion is the dominant source of sand and gravel-sized particles that are mobilized into beaches and the nearshore system. Researchers have found that the leading cause of bluff erosion is shallow to intermediate depth translational landslides. Therefore, estimating lake sediment budgets depends on an understanding of the mechanisms that lead to landslide failure. This study will provide a comprehensive analysis of bluff stability for bluffs affected by landslide failure coupled with an analysis of bluff composition to determine the composition of sediment contributions of coastal bluffs to the southeast Lake Michigan sediment budget. R/RCE-08

The Impact of Reengineering on Both Beach Water Quality and the Economic Value of the Beach

Greg Kleinheinz, UW-Oshkosh, (920) 424-1100,
Matthew Winden, UW-Whitewater
Nilay Sheth, UW-Oshkosh

Based on extensive monitoring, researchers at UW-Oshkosh carried out mitigation at five beaches in northern Wisconsin, including redesigning each beach, treating stormwater and naturalizing the shoreline surrounding the beach area to promote natural sand retention and wave action. An unintended benefit of this work has been a significant increase in beach usage at beaches that have undergone these redesign plans. Researchers will assess the physical, chemical and biological water quality parameters after mitigation to ensure the remediation was successful. In addition to these more standard measures, choice valuation and economic impact analysis will be used to determine what features are used by beachgoers who visit a location and how much money they spend on the beach trip. The beach improvement assessment will be of critical importance when other communities assess best management practices at their beaches and whether investment of public funding goes to support mitigation. R/RCE-10

Risk-based Assessment and Management (RAMAN) Online Visualization Tools for Health of Bluff, Beach and Nearshore Environments on Wisconsin’s Coast

Chin Wu, UW-Madison, (608) 263-3078,
Qunying Huang, UW-Madison
Adam Bechle, Wisconsin Coastal Management Program
Gene Clark, Wisconsin Sea Grant

Risks from coastal bluff and shoreline erosion threaten personal safety, property and infrastructure along Great Lakes coastlines. Researchers will identify hazards near coastal structures on bluffed and sandy coasts through measurements of bluff and shoreline recession, bluff profiles, nearshore sediment thickness and nearshore sediment transport. Assessments of hazards will be conducted using observed data and models of bluff stability, shoreline change and sediment budgets to predict bluff/shoreline positions. The outcomes of the hazard assessment will be intersected with socioeconomic indexes to provide direct and indirect risk assessments – the first estimates in Wisconsin of expected damages to property from coastal erosion. Risks will be communicated to management, planners and stakeholders through a spatial web portal and 3D interactive bluff erosion visualization. Overall, this project will provide managers and stakeholders with the information needed to take targeted actions along the coast and understand potential positive and negative impacts of coastal protection measures. R/RCE-11

Development of Geo-Indicators for Assessment of Coastal Bluff Ecosystem in Lake Michigan for Regional Integrated Bluff Management (IBM)

Chin Wu, UW-Madison, (608) 263-3078,

Coastal bluffs along the Great Lakes are a sensitive landscape feature, often containing both vital shoreline habitat at the bluff toe and urbanized development at the crest. Sediments in the coastal bluff environment (CBE) play an important role in ecosystem function. Movements of sediment are constantly altered by natural climate factors and anthropogenic coastal development, making a sediment budget accounting for sources, sinks and pathways of sediment transport critical. In this project we will develop three sets of geo-indicators to parameterize the CBE, quantify coastal processes on a regional sediment budget and characterize the health or function services of the CBE. The resilience of geo-indicators in response to stressors like coastal development and climate change would be examined on three sites of varying urbanization along the Wisconsin coast of Lake Michigan. The geo-indicators would help coastal managers effectively assess the health of the coastal bluff ecosystem for regional integrated bluff management (IBM) along Lake Michigan. (R/RCE-02)

Improving Upon Flash Flooding Risk Assessments and Forecasts for Great Lakes Cities

Paul Roebber, UW-Milwaukee, (414) 229-3950,

 Great Lakes communities inevitably face heavy rainfall and flash flooding events. Although we have a significant amount of historical and future projections of precipitation data as it relates to flooding throughout the Milwaukee and Chicago regions, we lack an integration of that precipitation-flooding knowledge with critical atmospheric signals, antecedent atmospheric and soil conditions, and land-surface information. This project will develop several operational tools using both types of information that forecasters, emergency management personnel and the broader community can use when either a heavy rainfall event is predicted or as part of long-term planning. The project includes testing and dissemination of the tools. By taking the necessary steps to develop resiliency recommendations and emergency response tools to protect critical infrastructures and dwellings, these major Great Lakes cities will reduce their vulnerability to extreme precipitation, reduce loss to life and property, and increase their overall resilience to climate change. R/RCE-03


Coastal Engineering Outreach, Project Assistance and Promotion of Using Non-Biased Science-Based Information in Determining Environmental Dredging Windows
Great Lakes harbor and port navigation channel dredging serves the commercial shipping industry. These channels are also areas used by native fish and other aquatic species for spawning, migrating and/or living. In an attempt to minimize disruption of the natural use of the region by aquatic life during the dredging of the navigation channel, permitting agencies establish protective “environmental dredging windows.”  Setting accurate windows is a difficult task. This effort will use science-based data to better justify proper environmental dredging windows in a coordinated and collaborative approach.

Port and Harbor Infrastructure Outreach and Project Assistance
Sea Grant will continue to provide education, research and outreach concerning the accelerated freshwater corrosion seen in Lake Superior port, harbor and marina structures. This will include hosting the research and outreach steering committee’s website and production of communications products. Varying Great Lakes water levels have increased the deterioration and failure of many timber and concrete structures. There is an increased need for non-advocacy science-based repair and rehabilitation information and Sea Grant is an ideal source for this information.

Harbor Dredging Beneficial Use of Dredged Material Outreach and Project Assistance
The maritime industry relies on adequate water depth in harbors and connecting channels for navigation. Maintaining that depth in areas of natural accumulation of sediments requires periodic dredging. Slightly more than half of the dredged sediment is disposed of in specifically designed confined facilities. Sea Grant and its private sector and governmental partners will work to raise awareness about the value of dredged material as a sustainable resource that can be beneficially used.

Great Lakes Nature-Based (Green) Coastal Shoreline Protection Coastal Engineering Outreach and Promotion of Appropriate Use in Great Lakes Applications
Nature-based coastal shoreline protection uses a range of nature-based stabilization techniques combined with traditional “grey” methods to provide a proven and cost-effective alternative. Grey solutions involve concrete, steel and stone shoreline protection. The keys to successful green installations have been a wise choice of location and material/design selections. This effort will continue efforts to partner with stakeholders, learning from successful nature-based demonstration projects, identifying locations and providing outreach.

Coastal Engineering Project, Grant Proposal Review and Permit Assistance
Great Lakes shoreline and coastal regions continue to receive pressure from both occasional weekend vacationers, and especially, year-round property owners and developments. Record levels of waterfront activities as well as the high demand for coastal property have created increased levels of human pressure on fragile shoreline areas. Sea Grant and state and federal governmental partners will meet critical needs of property owners, resource managers, lenders, insurers, engineers, realtors and local, regional and statewide agencies with natural coastal hazard awareness, permit review assistance, grant proposal reviews, coastal engineering guidance, education opportunities and shoreline management tools. Special emphasis will be placed on harbors.

Related Publications

Deciding About Sediment Remediation: A Step-by-Step Guide to Making the Decisions
This book is for people who make or influence decisions about sediment remediation. It describes a step-by-step sequence of decisions to determine whether, and how, to clean up contaminated sediments, or to let natural recovery occur. Read more...

Living on the Coast: Protecting Investments in Shore Property on the Great Lakes
If you own or plan to buy Great Lakes coastal property, or you are involved in coastal planning or development, this full-color 50-page booklet will help you make informed decisions. Read more...

Coastal Processes Manual
This manual provides step-by-step instructions on how to estimate risk to Great Lakes coastal property from extreme lake levels, storms and erosion. Read more...

Estimating Economic Benefits of Cleaning Up Contaminated Sediments in Great Lakes Areas of Concern
This report describes a two-stage approach to estimating the value the public places on large-scale sediment remediation projects and comparing that value to the estimated costs of the projects. Read more...

More Related Publications
See our publications store for more coastal engineering publications. Read more...

Related Websites

Wisconsin's Water Library
Established in 1964 by the UW Water Resources Institute, Wisconsin's Water Library (formerly known as the Water Resources Library) is unique among UW-Madison's many libraries for its collection of almost 30,000 volumes of water-related information about the Great Lakes and the waters of Wisconsin. The library includes a curriculum collection, dozens of educational videos, a children's collection, and more than 20 journals and 100 newsletters. Read more...