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Ohio Sea Grant College Program
and Stone Laboratory

Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory

Development of an Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) for the Great Lakes

Project Number: R/PS-003, Completion Report

Start Date: 9/1/1983

Completion Date: 12/31/1984

Revision Date: 7/30/2010

Principal Investigator(s)1.Charles Herdendorf, *
Co-Principal Investigator(s)2.Laura Faye, *
This shows the current affiliation and may not match affiliation at time of participation. *


To develop an Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) for potential oil spills in the Great Lakes. To prepare the ESI, diverse resource data will be collected and synthesized onto a set of easily read maps which will include the following components: 1. Geomorphic data, 2. Biologic data, 3. Socioeconomic data, and 4. Spill response information.


The need for researching and producing Environmental Sensitivity Index maps for the Great Lakes stems from the increased production of oil and toxic substances around the Great Lakes as well as oil discharges from commercial vessels and discharges from oil refineries. ESI maps will be useful in oil spill (or other hazardous materials) contingency planning and response for the Great Lakes.


As a pilot study for the Great Lakes, Lake Erie will be investigated first. The following study plan will be implemented to gather information for the ESI.
  1. Literature Search
    1. Ecological aspects
    2. Geology
    3. Climate
    4. Physical characteristics
    5. Oil spill response data
  2. Field Investigations
    1. Aerial reconnaissance of entire coastal zone
    2. Beach profiles and grain-size analysis
    3. Interviews with knowledgeable citizens and technical experts.

Graphic displays of the environmentally sensitive areas along the U.S. portion of the shoreline from Port Huron, Michigan to Buffalo, New York will be prepared utilizing topographic base maps.

Benefits & Accomplishments

1984: The intended and attained achievement of this project was to prepare maps according to the standard environmental sensitivity maps (ESI). These maps will be utilized by NOAA and the Coast Guard for planning and clean up during toxic and or oil spills which occur within the Lake Erie system (St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, Detroit River, Lake Erie, and the Niagara River).

1984: These maps include geological, biological, and cultural aspects of the shoreline to help the Coast Guard in prioritizing areas for clean up. The EPA in the individual states have also expressed an interest in acquiring these maps to facilitate their building and dredging permitting operation.

1984: The environmental sensitivity of the Lake Erie shoreline was mapped on USGS topographic maps by color coding the following coastal types, grading from least sensitive to most fragile:

  1. Exposed bedrock headlands
  2. Exposed glacial till bluffs
  3. Exposed compact lacustrine (primarily fine sand to gravel) bluffs - subject to high erosion
  4. Pocket beaches on exposed bedrock and glacial till shores
  5. Fine sand beaches (including sand dunes) 6. Course sand and gravel beaches
  6. Riprap and harbor structures (i.e., seawalls, breakwaters, groins, and jetties)
  7. Sheltered bedrock, glacial till or lacustrine bluffs
  8. Low lacustrine (primarily silt and clay) banks - subject to high erosion and flooding.
  9. Marshes and wetlands
    1. Sheltered (including diked marshes)
    2. Exposed

These maps were published by the NOAA, Hazardous Materials Response Branch and are currently in use by all U.S. Coast Guard stations in the study area. The Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) has pr]Yen to be a successful pilot program for the other Great Lakes, by providing a useful support tool for NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard in cases of oil, salt, or other toxic substance spills.

Publications & Media

Peer-reviewed reprints
Peer-reviewed reprintsHerdendorf, C. and L. Fay. 1988, Development of an environmental sensitivity index for coastal areas of Lake Erie, North America
Verh. Internat. Verein. Limnol. 23:380-385, Stuttgart, January 1988. Made available by Ohio Sea Grant as OHSU-RS-093.
Peer-reviewed reprintsHerdendorf, C.E. 1990, Great Lakes estuaries
Estuaries 13(4), 398-424. Made available by Ohio Sea Grant Ohio Sea Grant as OHSU-RS-368.
Deprecated: Books, monographs, book chapters
Deprecated: Books, monographs, book chaptersSexton, W.J., T.G. Ballou, L.A. Fay and C.E. Herdendorf. 1986, Sensitivity of coastal environments and wildlife to spilled oil, Lake Erie System, an atlas of coastal resources
Made available by Office of Oceanography and Marine Assessment, Made available by Ohio Sea Grant as OHSU-BS-002.