Lake level is a primary control on shoreline behavior in Lake Michigan. The historical record from lake-level gauges is the most accurate source of information on past lake levels, but the short duration of the record does not permit the recognition of long-term patterns of lake-level change (longer than a decade or two). To extend the record of lake-level change, the internal architecture and timing of development of five strand plains of late Holocene beach ridges along the Lake Michigan coastline were studied. Relative lake-level curves for each site were constructed by determining the elevation of foreshore (swash zone) sediments in the beach ridges and by dating basal wetland sediments in the swales between ridges. These curves detect long-term (30+ yr) lake-level variations and differential isostatic adjustments over the past 4700 yr at a greater resolution than achieved by other studies.

The average timing of beach-ridge development for all sites is between 29 and 38 yr/ridge. This correspondence occurs in spite of the embayments containing the strand plains being different in size, orientation, hydrographic regime, and available sediment type and caliber. If not coincidental, all sites responded to a lake-level fluctuation of a little more than three decades in duration and a range of 0.5 to 0.6 m. Most pronounced in the relative lake-level curves is a fluctuation of 120–180 yr in duration. This ≈150 yr variation is defined by groups of four to six ridges that show a rise and fall in foreshore elevations of 0.5 to 1.5 m within the group. The 150 yr variation can be correlated between sites in the Lake Michigan basin. The ≈30 and 150 yr fluctuations are superimposed on a long-term loss of water to the Lake Michigan basin and differential rates of isostatic adjustment.

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