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IU Northwest geosciences student from Crown Point receives $10,000 grant to study erosion at Mt. Baldy

Chesterton-based Flora Richardson Foundation awards fellowship to Michael Menchaca for ongoing study of shifting sands at Indiana Dunes

The sand at Mt. Baldy and other Indiana Dunes sites is alive. And Indiana University Northwest student and faculty researchers are using a $10,000 grant to fund a study of where that sand is moving, how quickly it’s likely to get there, and what can be done to stop it.

On a recent Monday in May, IU Northwest Associate Professor of Geosciences Zoran Kilibarda, Ph.D., and student Michael Menchaca, of Crown Point, measured the progress of the Mt. Baldy dune on its landward side, where sand creeps steadily toward the popular natural attraction’s parking lot. Trees affixed with metal washers and tagged with red tape provided the researchers with points of reference against which to measure the dune’s progression.

Results from their latest survey showed that the sands of Mt. Baldy are shifting toward the parking lot at a significant rate. Markers on several trees had either been covered by sand or were expected to disappear in the coming weeks. Menchaca and Kilibarda had to tag new trees further down the slope to create checkpoints for future measurements.

“I was surprised,” said Kilibarda, who has been studying the Mt. Baldy dune migration for about two years. “Ever since I’ve moved here, I’ve liked hiking in Dunes State Park and Mt. Baldy. I would think, ‘Well, there’s something different this time.’ But you are never sure until you have evidence of it. Now, I am thinking that it’s been moving much faster these last two years than it was before. Of course, that may be a little subjective, because I’ve followed it so closely (during the study).”

Menchaca is the latest geosciences student at IU Northwest to assist Kilibarda with the Mt. Baldy study – a previous contributor to the project, alumna Diane Taylor, is now doing graduate work at Villanova. But Menchaca hit pay dirt this spring when he received a $10,000 fellowship grant from the Chesterton-based Flora Richardson Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship Fund to continue and expand the Mt. Baldy research.

The Flora Richardson Foundation is named for the noted naturalist and Dunes advocate Flora Richardson, who spent years along the Indiana lakeshore with her husband, scientist and photographer William Richardson, investigating and cataloguing the Dunes’ countless natural wonders. The Flora Richardson Foundation is a non-profit entity that funds educational fellowships for student research in the natural sciences and natural history.

Menchaca submitted the Fellowship application, and Kilibarda signed on as faculty sponsor.

“Michael’s accepted proposal, ‘Rates of Sand Movement and Inland Migration of Mt. Baldy, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore,’ is clearly one that fits our criteria and has potential for understanding and improving the environment in the Indiana Dunes area,” stated Robert Hartmann, president of the Board of Directors for Flora Richardson Foundation, Inc., in his notification letter to IU Northwest.

Menchaca and Kilibarda will use the grant money to purchase supplies and equipment, including a portable weather station to measure wind velocity and conditions at Baldy. The project also calls for other historical data, some of which must be purchased, and the money will help cover travel expenses and other ancillary costs.

“It would be a shame to see that beach (at Baldy) gone because of erosion,” Menchaca said. “It’s just a beautiful landform that should be preserved.”

Menchaca, who changed his major from education to geosciences after discovering his knack for science and fieldwork, said he was in class when Kilibarda was notified about the FRF grant award.

“I was very excited,” Menchaca said. “Someone came in and congratulated him, and I got a big smile on my face, and he smiled back. So I knew we’d gotten it.”

Menchaca said that he found his calling in his geosciences classes, which built on his lifelong interest in science. At the urging of his wife, who is a teacher, Menchaca began his studies at IU Northwest in the School of Education. But Kilibarda saw both promise and passion in Menchaca’s geosciences work, and he encouraged the young man to consider a career in the field.

“He said, ‘You’re pretty good at this. I know you say that you want to be a teacher, but I want you to know that this other option is available to you. You’re doing very well in my class, so take a look at this and see if you want to do it,’ recalled Menchaca, who currently works full-time in his father’s St. John restaurant.

“I spoke with my wife, and she agreed,” he said. “I really enjoy doing this. She said, ‘I want to see you happy, so if you really love it, then jump into it.’ I’ve always been a science guy, ever since I was younger. I love science. It’s fun. I can never get bored with it. I don’t have to force myself to do my reading, or do my projects, or write my papers. It feels good.”

Kilibarda and Menchaca agreed that it also feels pretty good to spend a sunny Monday outside climbing around Mt. Baldy rather than in an office or a classroom. After notating the dune’s progression at their Baldy stations, the researchers enjoyed a relaxing lunch, then traveled to Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton to mark some measurement stations on a dune there. The intent, Kilibarda explained, is to compare the progression of the two dunes and see if management methods used at the state park achieve different or better results than those utilized at the National Park Service unit.

Measuring dune progression is just one element of the IU Northwest researchers’ investigation into Mt. Baldy’s erosion and migration, Kilibarda explained.

“We will go back and trace its past movements,” the professor said. “And we will do that through historical aerial photographs, because we’ve collected photographs from the 1930s, and from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. We will compare those with some GIS geo-referencing data so that we know exactly the position of the dune 50 years ago.

“In addition to this, we are analyzing weather data, or climate data, and what was going on with the lake level at all of those intervals for which we have aerial photographs,” Kilibarda continued. “For example, we have an aerial photograph from 1938. We know what the lake level was for that time. But we want to know what the weather and climate were at that time. Was the rain average or was it more rainy than average? Was it drier than normal?”

Ultimately, Kilibarda said, this information should help him and Menchaca to predict how future weather patterns are likely to influence Mt. Baldy’s beach erosion and dune migration. The National Park Service, he added, is supportive of the study, which will have practical ramifications for the future management of the national lakeshore.

“They can see what the best way is to manage that property, and to do something with the parking lot that is now in danger of being just buried by this advancing sand,” Kilibarda said. He noted that approximately one million tons of sand have been deposited near Baldy since 1972 to combat beach erosion.

“How effective that is, it’s hard to say,” Kilibarda said. “We may pick up something in our historical studies. We know they started in ’72. So we can say, ‘OK, what trend do we see since 1972? How does that compare with those years before they did anything? Is there an improvement? Does it really matter? Are they just wasting money?’”

The Mt. Baldy study is one example of how ambitious students at IU Northwest are able to extend their learning beyond the classroom and benefit from close interaction with Ph.D. professors who involve them in significant research. Kilibarda expects to publish and present the Baldy study’s findings, and he said Menchaca would be right there with him explaining their conclusions to other professional geologists.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Kilibarda said. “I like it when I have good students who are willing to learn and assist in research. It’s a two-way street. I need some help, because I can’t do everything myself. If somebody is interested, I am so happy that I can share what’s going on and discuss it. I like having students who are free thinkers, who can not only follow instructions but, once they get involved, can also start thinking and discussing their own ideas.”

Menchaca described Kilibarda as an instructor who is eager to share his knowledge and years of accumulated field experience with students.

“I love working with Dr. Kilibarda. I really have learned a lot from him,” said Menchaca, who previously assisted Associate Professor of Geosciences Kris Huysken, Ph.D., with her research on a sizable earthquake that struck northern Illinois in 1909. “We go out there and he shows me the ropes, the techniques that he has used in the past. I love it. I’m very happy that he came and talked to me about (geosciences). I didn’t really want to be a teacher.”

Menchaca’s $10,000 Flora Richardson Foundation grant has provided some much-needed funding to his and Kilibarda’s Mt. Baldy study, meaning the research will be sustained throughout the remainder of Menchaca’s undergraduate career. The work, along with his continued good grades, should allow Menchaca to progress to an excellent graduate program. Menchaca didn’t discount the possibility that he might teach his chosen subject to others one day, but he said that first he wants to gain as much field experience as possible.

“Right now, I want to get my hands dirty. I want to get in there and get some experience,” he said. “It’s not all theory. You go out there and you do the work.”



Media Contact:

Christopher Sheid

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IU Northwest Department of Geosciences

Photo by Christopher Sheid/IU Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications
IU Northwest Associate Professor of Geosciences Zoran Kilibarda, Ph.D., stands on the Mt. Baldy sand dune at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore during a research excursion there in May. The south, or landward, side of the dune is shifting back toward the park's parking area. Kilibarda has spent two years studying dune migration and erosion at Baldy.

Photo by Christopher Sheid/IU Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications
Prof. Kilibarda (left) and his student, Michael Menchaca, of Crown Point, stand atop a dune at Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton after setting some measurement points on trees at the back side of the dune. The researchers hope to compare dune migration at the state park with that occurring at Baldy. Menchaca recently was awarded a $10,000 fellowship grant from the Flora Richardson Foundation to fund this research at the Dunes.

Photo by Christopher Sheid/IU Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications
Michael Menchaca measures a tree at Mt. Baldy before affixing a washer to it to use as a point of reference for future measurements. Migrating sand from the Mt. Baldy dune had covered some of the existing measurement points that Menchaca and IU Northwest Associate Professor of Geosciences Zoran Kilibarda, Ph.D., had been using to gauge the dune's progression south toward the parking lot. They had to replace those measurement stations with new ones.
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