The country has been roughed up by politics but the Northeast even more roughed up by storms in the past week, as if nature was sending some kind of furious message about who’s really in charge.
The Island was scoured by the northern edge of Hurricane Sandy early last week and then this week a ripping, two-day northeaster cancelled ferries and planes and flooded roads and beaches for the second time in ten days.
And the Vineyard coastline has taken a beating. Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark, unrecognizable from gold-sand carefree summer days, has been reduced to a pile of ocean-strewn boulders and collapsed cliffs.
Not far away at Squibnocket Beach the parking lot was nearly washed away by the storm and will need major repairs.
At Stonewall Beach, a house that had been moved twenty-six feet back from the edge of a cliff just eleven months ago now stands a mere few feet from the edge of a new sandy cliff.
At the eastern end of the Island near Wasque Reservation on Chappaquiddick, urgent efforts are under way to stabilize a rapidly eroding cliff near the Schifter house.
Will two Vineyard houses fall over the edge and into the ocean or can they be saved? Islanders are following the saga like a reality television series.
In the extreme westernmost reaches of the Vineyard, the Gay Head Light is another structure threatened by erosion, and planning has begun for a project to move the historic brick tower sometime in the next one to three years.
“The changing shoreline on Martha’s Vineyard variously fascinates, startles or horrifies people, depending on where they live or own property,” wrote Arthur Gaines, a senior scientist in Woods Hole, thirteen years ago in a piece about erosion for the Gazette. Using old maps, the marine scientist charted changes on our complex shoreline. Other coastline mapping projects to track the effects of erosion have been under way here since the 1970s through the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
Severe storms are just one factor in the ongoing story of the Vineyard’s shifting coastline; rising sea levels have been well documented by scientists at Woods Hole who have been measuring tides since the 1930s. Add climate change to the list and the picture grows even more complex.
Erosion and accretion (the building up of sand) are a natural process, sometimes subtle and at other times dramatic and accelerated like at Wasque, where the Norton Point breach is a driving force in rapid changes taking place there.
Fortunately, the vast majority of the Vineyard coastline is unbuilt, making situations like the one at the Schifter house the exception rather than the rule. Severe storms such as the ones seen recently have a ruinous effect on coastal infrastructure such as roads, bike paths and parking lots, but beaches recover naturally.
Last weekend when the weather turned mild and sunny, curious Islanders flocked to Lucy Vincent to see the after effects of Sandy. Some people climbed on collapsed cliffs and dug in the clay looking for shark’s teeth and fossils. Climbing on the cliffs is not only harmful to the environment, but also dangerous because the cliffs have been undermined by the ocean and are unstable.
Walkers at Island beaches should take caution and do their part to allow the storm-battered Vineyard shoreline to begin its own natural process of healing and recovery.