Most Great Lakes dunes were formed about 4000-6000 years ago, during very high water. They are found along all of the Great Lakes and are the largest freshwater dune ecosystem in the world. The dunes in New York are small examples of much larger ones found in Michigan on Lake Superior that can be seen from outer space. The plants that live on all Great Lakes dunes must be able to withstand large climate variations such as bitter cold winters, summers up to 180°F (80°C), and abrasive winds.
There are less than twenty occurrences statewide, and probably not many more historically given that its range is restricted to the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and Lake Champlain. Although several documented occurrences have good viability, there are no high quality examples known in the state (i.e., no A- to AB-ranked occurrences). Several dunes are protected on public land or private conservation land. The current trend of this community is declining slightly as a result of shoreline development, invasive species, and recreational overuse.
The number and acreage of Great Lakes dunes in New York have probably declined slightly in recent decades as a result of shoreline development and recreational overuse.
The number and acreage of Great Lakes dunes in New York have probably declined moderately from historical numbers as a result of shoreline development and artificial lake level management. Specific occurrences have reported substantial declines (e.g., 80% loss of area in one New York site).
Great Lakes dunes are threatened by development (e.g., residential, recreational, shoreline hardening), either directly within the community or in the surrounding landscape. Other threats include habitat alteration (e.g., beach grooming, vegetation removal), and recreational overuse (e.g., ATVs, beach access trails and boardwalks, trash dumping, campgrounds). This community is particurly threatened by activities that alter the natural movement and deposition of sand. ATVs and trampling by visitors kills vegetation, which leads to erosion, and in some cases results in dune "blow-outs." At a larger scale, the artificial management of lake levels may have altered past natural sand deposition patterns. A few Great Lakes dunes are threatened by invasive species, such as buckthorns (Rhamnus cathartica, Frangula alnus), shrubby honeysuckle (Lonicera tartarica), spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), black locust (Robinia pseudo-acacia), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), and exotic grasses (e.g., Festuca obtusa, F. ovina).
Minimize or avoid habitat alteration within the dunes and surrounding landscape. Prevent recreational overuse. Prevent the spread of invasive exotic species into the dunes through appropriate direct management and by minimizing potential dispersal corridors, such as beach access trails and roads.
Any development effort that disrupts connectivity between one of the Great Lakes and and the dune system should be avoided (e.g., a road running parallel to the beach between the beach and dunes). This community is best protected as part of a beach, dune, backdune community complex. Development should avoid fragmentation of such systems to allow dynamic ecological processes (overwash, erosion, and migration) to continue. Connectivity to sand beach and backdune communities should be maintained. Connectivity between these habitats is important not only for nutrient flow and seed dispersal, but also for animals that move between them seasonally. Similarly, fragmentation of linear dune systems should be avoided. Bisecting trails, roads, and developments allow exotic species to invade, potentially disrupt physical dune processes.
Look for other occurrences along Lake Ontario and check the boundaries of El Dorado and Southwick dunes and confirm their extent.
Research is needed to determine the effect artificial lake level management has had on the natural movement and deposition of sand in this community. Research is needed into the relative proportion of Amophila breviligulata vs. A. champlainensis at these dunes and into their use in dune restoration.
Primarily restricted to the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, with a few small occurrences along the eastern shore of Lake Erie and northwestern Lake Champlain. There may be small sites extant along the south shore of Lake Ontario. The historical range may have extended to this area. New York is at the easternmost end of the range extending west across the Great Lakes shores to eastern Minnesota.
This community is restricted to the shores of the five Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. This range is estimated to span north to southern Ontario, west to eastern Minnesota, south to Ohio, east to New York, and possibly Vermont.
A community dominated by grasses and shrubs that occurs on active and stabilized sand dunes along the shores of the Great Lakes. The composition and structure of the community is variable depending on stability of the dunes, the amount of sand deposition and erosion, and distance from the lake. Unstable dunes are sparsely vegetated, whereas the vegetation of stable dunes is more dense, and can eventually become forested.
Great Lakes dunes are a grass and shrub dominated community found on wind-deposited sand on the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Unstable dunes that are actively being created are often covered with beach grass (Ammophila champlainensis) and open sand areas, or blowouts, are common.
Known examples of this community have been found at elevations between 100 feet and 610 feet.
The best time to visit Great Lakes dunes is in the summer, from mid-June to early September, when dune plants are reproductive and the water of the Great Lakes has warmed to a comfortable temperature for swimming.
This New York natural community encompasses all or part of the concept of the following International Vegetation Classification (IVC) natural community associations. These are often described at finer resolution than New York's natural communities. The IVC is developed and maintained by NatureServe.
This New York natural community falls into the following ecological system(s). Ecological systems are often described at a coarser resolution than New York's natural communities and tend to represent clusters of associations found in similar environments. The ecological systems project is developed and maintained by NatureServe.
Betula alleghaniensis (yellow birch)
Fagus grandifolia (American beech)
Cornus sericea (red-osier dogwood)
Salix cordata (sand-dune willow)
Artemisia campestris ssp. caudata (sand wormwood)
This figure helps visualize the structure and "look" or "feel" of a typical Great Lakes Dunes. Each bar represents the amount of "coverage" for all the species growing at that height. Because layers overlap (shrubs may grow under trees, for example), the shaded regions can add up to more than 100%.
Bonanno, Sandra E., Donald J. Leopold, and Lisa R. St. Hiliaire. 1998. Vegetation of a freshwater dune barrier under high and low recreational uses. Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society. 125(1), 1998, pp. 40-50.
Edinger, G. J., D. J. Evans, S. Gebauer, T. G. Howard, D. M. Hunt, and A. M. Olivero (editors). 2014. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition. A revised and expanded edition of Carol Reschke’s Ecological Communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, NY. http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/ecocomm2014.pdf
Edinger, Gregory J., D.J. Evans, Shane Gebauer, Timothy G. Howard, David M. Hunt, and Adele M. Olivero (editors). 2002. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition. A revised and expanded edition of Carol Reschke's Ecological Communities of New York State. (Draft for review). New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY. 136 pp.
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2019. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.
Reschke, Carol. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Latham, NY. 96 pp. plus xi.
This guide was authored by: Shereen Brock
Information for this guide was last updated on: March 6, 2017
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2019. Online Conservation Guide for Great Lakes dunes. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/great-lakes-dunes/. Accessed January 18, 2019.