Lake Michigan Wind Makes Sand Sculptures

Joshua Nowicki, a Michigan photographer, and his wife had a rather unexpected surprise this Valentine’s Day weekend when they planned a stroll along the shores of Lake Michigan. Blasts of arctic wind and snow forced them to postpone their walk until the next day, but in the end, the conditions actually proved somewhat favorable – for reasons he captured pretty well with his camera.

“On Valentines Day my wife and I had been intending to go out dinner but due to the blizzard condition that day, we decided to post-pone our evening out until Sunday,” he said to News 10 of Detroit.

“My wife is extremely supportive of my photography career and encourage me to go out and take some photos of the lake and lighthouse.”

When they finally did go for their walk along the frozen sand, the landscape was rather different than he had anticipated.

“I was expecting that with the high winds there might be some wave crashing over the pier giving the lighthouses a new coating of ice. However, the lake ice had extended past the lighthouses (therefore no crashing waves on the pier) so I was unable to take the photos I was hoping to take.”

Instead of the traditional shots of a beach and lighthouse landscape at dusk that Nowicki had originally hoped for, he saw something else – what appeared to be intricately constructed mounds jutting out of the frozen sand all along the beach – what appeared to be the lost remains of a forgotten civilization. Nowicki momentarily felt like the farmers who first discovered the hidden remains of Pompeii centuries after it was covered by ash. Overnight, carefully constructed monuments appeared to be rising out of the sand.

“As I walked home along the beach I saw some of the small sand structures. The first ones I saw were very small however a little farther along the beach I saw more and larger ones. The largest were about 12 inches tall. At Silver Beach County Park in St. Joseph, Michigan I saw five areas with the sand structures. The largest area that one patch covered was about 3 feet by 10 feet.”

The extreme temperatures – which are also responsible for covering 94 percent of Lake Michigan with ice – something that made for some stunning pictures last year in the wake of the Polar Vortex – had caused the sand to freeze. Extreme winds coming off the lake during the blizzard pushed water ashore, and the frozen sand began to erode much like rocks, only slower, and leaving a smoother shape when it took chunks of sand back into the water. You might think of the process as similar to how vast prehistoric rivers gradually gave way to forming canyons, only the erosion process takes a few hours rather than the work of centuries. The phenomenon is hardly unknown, and not even one that was unfamiliar to Nowicki:

“I had seen some similar but smaller ones at the beach a couple of years ago. At that time I had just taken up photography and was not able to take decent photos of them. It was about 6:30pm on the 14th when I took some of the photos. As it was getting dark, I decided to come back at sunrise on the 15th to take more photos. By the 15th they had further eroded but some were still there. By the 16th the sun (even though it was still cold) had mostly dried them out and they had fallen down into little piles of sand.”

This time he came prepared, however, careful to add a little perspective to each. Although many of the wind sculptures were relatively small, some of the pictures appear to be from the surface of an alien world, where Nowicki has managed to crawl into one of their strange dwellings:

“Being that they were relatively small (12 inches or less) I decided to lay down on the sand to take the photos. I really wanted to show the detail of the formations.”

The tower formations are similar to the Hoodoo columns found along the Colorado Plateau in Utah, which formed due to erosion from the glaciers melting after the last Ice Age.

Josh’s beach photos have become not only an internet sensation, but were even featured on Good Morning America as well as The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, Colossal, the Detroit Free Press and the Huffington Post. They can be viewed here at his blog:

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.