If you see a low-flying helicopter hauling what appears to be a giant, mechanical Hula-Hoop near Lake Michigan’s shoreline this week, there’s no need to panic. It’s only Illinois’ latest science project.

Starting as soon as Wednesday, a helicopter will be carrying a large electromagnetic array from Kenosha to the Illinois-Indiana state line as the Illinois State Geological Survey hopes to shed light on a question that’s plagued Chicago-area beachgoers for decades: Where has all the sand gone?

"In some areas, there’s not enough sand and, in other places, there’s too much," said Diane Tecic, program director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Management Program. "What we realized is we don’t have all the information that we need to make decisions and find actual solutions that are going to work (to fix this issue)."

The coastal flyover will use specialized equipment imported from Denmark to diagram the landscape of the lake floor. By using electromagnetic signals, researchers will not only be able to get a clearer picture of Lake Michigan’s profile, but also better understand its composition.

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"That’s a really important baseline," said state geologist Ethan Theuerkauf. "This particular technology will tell you not only where sand is, but the thickness of those deposits."

Over the past two centuries, man-made infrastructure along Lake Michigan — such as piers and harbors — has disrupted the natural, southward drift of sand from Wisconsin to Indiana, the process that formed the Indiana Dunes over thousands of years. By disturbing this coastal dynamic, beaches in some areas have begun to disappear while sand has built up in other areas. From dredging harbors to importing sand for beaches, this issue has cost coastal communities in Illinois roughly $3 million a year, according to a survey conducted by Chicago-based nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes last year.

"The more that I’ve gotten into this, the more you realize the complexity of the issue," Tecic said. "There are number of different things making it a challenging issue. There’s not an easyanswer. For a long time, people would say, ‘Put in a jetty,’ or ‘Nourish a beach’ not understanding that we’re a part of a big, regional system."

This research, funded by the DNR through a $233,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hopes to be among the first studies to examine how sand deposits along the lake floor have changed over time. The study will be the first in more than two decades, when the Geological Survey measured differences in sand thickness at several stretches of the Lake Michigan by manually measuring with a metal rod between 1974 to 1994. That study found that the lake bed was getting deeper by up to 4 inches annually in some areas in Illinois.

Experts like Tecic have some theories as to what the project might find. Waukegan Harbor has notoriously trapped sand over the years, requiring the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel each year and dump much of the sediment south of the harbor. Tecic said preliminary evidence suggests there may be a large mound of sand due south of the harbor, resulting from a "dead zone," an area without much wave action, or an abnormal current that isn’t carrying the sand toward southern parts of the lakefront.

This research will also aim to explore another pressing issue, called lake bed down-cutting. In areas where there is no longer sand covering the lake bed, waves have carved into the primarily clay bed, a process that is irreversible. The deeper shoreline creates the opportunity for larger, more violent waves to exacerbate beach erosion, according to Theuerkauf.

But researchers will have to wait about a year for the voluminous amount of data to be analyzed. However, snapshots of the information could be published sooner, Theuerkauf said.

Developed in Denmark in the early 1990s, the technology implemented in this scientific research has been used in Canada and Europe for mining projects. In November, the equipment was also used to survey Yellowstone National Park in an attempt to learn more about the park’s intricate underground waterways that provide the means for its renowned geysers and hot springs.

In the past, the Army Corps viewed sand as a nuisance when it built up along coastal infrastructure, dumping it far offshore. With the helicopter making passes between the beach and up to 1,500 feet offshore, this could be the first study to determine whether the sand has dispersed or whether there’s a large deposit that can be reclaimed.

For over a year, coastal communities have come together to air problems stemming from shifting sands as well as brainstorm possible solutions. In areas like Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, beaches have lost hundreds of feet due to large waves from violent storms and rising lake levels. In other communities, like Waukegan, sands have clogged harbors, stalling boating commerce and carrying hefty price tags to remove sand each year.

"We need to work on understanding our coastline," Tecic said. "We have really important recreational assets, natural habitats and economics along Lake Michigan. And all of that is threatened by the way the sand is moving."

Though exposure to high amounts of electromagnetic waves can be harmful to people and animals, the electromagnetic field generated from the array is comparable to what we see in everyday life. Flying at around 150 feet above the ground, the array emits less of a magnetic field than a plasma TV, according to the state Geological Survey.

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