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Geologists Head To Mt. Baldy To Solve Dunes Mystery

Mt. Baldy From the Shore

Photo: Tom Gill (Flickr)

The 125-foot tall Mt. Baldy sand dune in Michigan City, Indiana.

Geologists are spending the next few weeks at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in an attempt to discover what what caused part of an Indiana sand dune to collapse and bury a 6-year-old boy last year.

The boy survived after being trapped under the sand at Mt. Baldy in Michigan City for hours, but national parks officials say they still do not know what caused the dune to sink.

More than 200,000 people make the trip to Mt. Baldy in Michigan City every summer, but, that changed last year.

“We’ve had people calling all throughout the summer saying, ‘Is Mt. Baldy open yet? Is Mt. baldy open?” says National Park Service Ranger Bruce Rowe.

An orange cone that sits near the dune’s base is a reminder of why it is not open.

“It would be described as a miracle,” says Erin Argyilan, assistant professor geology IU Northwest.  “I mean, the fall is one thing. But, you worry when sand collapses, there usually isn’t a lot of void space. So, it really is a miracle that he was able to survive and is doing so well.”

Six-year-old Nathan Woessner was buried under 11 feet of sand when the dune collapsed.

Since then, Mt. Baldy’s remained closed to everyone except geologists who started work on the dune this week.

“Geologists do their work by opening up the earth,” says Todd Thompson, assistant director of research Indiana Geological Survey. “When they were rescuing Nathan, emergency responders were on site, there wasn’t time for researchers to be there. The hole needed to be closed up for safety reasons immediately after.”

So, the geologists using ground-penetrating radars to create a 3D map of the dune.

One of the theories geologists are exploring is whether trees or debris buried by the natural movement of the dune could be decaying and causing openings in the sand.

They’ve discovered six holes — one of them just this week.

“But, I’m not that worried about it,” Thompson says. “Most of the holes that are occurring out here are in the 10 to maybe 20 cm in range. And, that’s the size of my foot.”

Larger holes have been documented in other places such as Oregon, but still they were significantly smaller than the one Nathan fell into.

The research team will turn in a formal report next year. Then the National Park Service will decide whether to re-open Mt. Baldy.

Both say it’s too early to determine whether anything can be done to prevent holes from forming in the dune.

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