Exploring the Geology of Sand Dunes

Tom Meulendyk surveyed the dunes using ground-penetrating radar

Tom Meulendyk surveyed the dunes using ground-penetrating radar

My name is Tom Meulendyk and I’m currently working as a research assistant with Dr. Nick Eyles at University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC). I graduated from UTSC where I worked with Nick for my senior level project, publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal (Eyles & Meulendyk, 2008). I then went to the University of Calgary where I did my Masters on the geophysical mapping of ice patches in the Northwest Territories.

Though I do spend time in the office, working as a researcher takes me beyond the desk and provides an opportunity to explore the natural environment and use innovative geophysical equipment. The position gives me the freedom to choose the direction of research and manage each project. My current study takes place at Long Point, Ont.

Hidden from plain sight, Long Point is a 40km sand spit (one of the longest in the world) that juts out into eastern Lake Erie. The public can access the spit through Long Point Provincial Park and discover its beautiful sandy beaches, extensive marshlands and see a variety of wildlife. Long Point is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, attracting thousands of bird watchers in spring and fall.

Long Point

Long Point

Our research, however, takes us beyond the confines of the provincial park. With help from the Canadian Wildlife Service, we were stationed within Long Point National Wildlife Area while conducting our research. This 3,200 hectare area has been maintained in its natural state – a combination of beaches, woodlands, ponds, wet meadows and big sand dunes. Think of a vegetated Sahara Desert! The complex system of dunes, up to 25m in height, is the backbone of the spit and the focus of our research. While it is known that the ridges of dunes have formed here over the last 5,000 years, the stages of dune construction and maturity have not been explored; the right geophysical techniques have only just come along. To answer these questions, Nick and I surveyed the dunes using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) that reveals the structure and layering deep below the surface. The radar system works by sending pulses of electromagnetic energy into the ground that reflect back as they encounter variations in the subsurface. The result is a two-dimensional cross-section of what is below your feet.

Our radar data provide a detailed picture of how the dunes grew and were sculpted by wind and storm events over time. Another important aspect of our fieldwork involved making observations of how young dunes are being formed today along the shoreline. During our time at Long Point, we enjoyed riding ATVs to each site, having lunch by the old lighthouse and spotting turtles, deer and bald eagles amongst the dunes. Using GPR over tall dunes in the summer heat can be demanding, but the surrounding beauty of Lake Erie and the excitement of discovery makes the hard work rewarding.

The processing and analysis of the GPR data is the next step as our work returns to the office and I am eager to see what the data tells us. We are working towards a model of how dunes form and mature and once again intend to publish the data so it becomes part of the wider knowledge of sand dunes. Our work will yield new insights into how the shoreline of Lake Erie has evolved through time. At Long Point, there are massive problems created by human settlement close to the shoreline, including erosion and flooding.

Field work is an essential part of geology and as geophysical techniques are developed we are able to explore what’s under our feet and make new insights into how our Earth has evolved.

Tom Meulendyk

Eyles, N. and Meulendyk, T. (2008) Ground penetrating radar study of a Pleistocene ice-scoured glaciolacustrine sequence boundary. Boreas 37, 226-233.


About uoftscarborough

The University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) is home to a community of active learners drawn from all over the globe, determined to use what we discover – through investigation, collaboration and experience – to make our world a better place. Our campus is an integral component of Canada’s leading research-intensive university, a place where faculty contribute to cutting-edge knowledge, where the finest students are taught by the finest professors. Upon graduation, our students have earned one of the most rigorous and respected post-secondary degrees in the world. At UTSC, we are working together to find answers to tomorrow’s most important questions. And because the search for knowledge must always be conducted in a meaningful way, our campus is continually alive with innovative programming, engaging discourse and dynamic experiences that feed our spirits and enrich our minds. This is how to prepare students for the best possible future. This is how our scholarship contributes to a better world. This is our promise. Because tomorrow is created here.
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One Response to Exploring the Geology of Sand Dunes

  1. Interesting post. Thank you!

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