Walking west on East Chop Drive on a tranquil spring morning, the only indication of trouble is a short metal gate with a spray-painted detour sign. The pavement is remarkably free of potholes and the two-lane road appears intact as far as the eye can see.
But beneath the roadway the sea has been quietly pestering the bluff that serves as its foundation, shifting boulders and scooping out sand. Unseen from above, the underpinning of the drive is so fragile that the oceanside lane has been officially closed to cars since October. Oak Bluffs officials say it will cost $8.7 million just to shore up the bluff, plus more to repair the road.
The phenomenon is the same, even if the effects are a little different, all around our precious Island where the inexorable process of coastal erosion — accelerated by rising sea levels and magnified by an unusually stormy winter — is remaking the shoreline in ways large and small.
Earlier this month another huge chunk of the iconic outcropping at Lucy Vincent Beach collapsed following a three-day storm. On Chappaquiddick, the Schifters have begun their retreat from a fast-eroding shoreline starting with the relocation of a guest house. And plans are forming to move the Gay Head lighthouse and dismantle a house on Stonewall Beach as the cliffs continue to wear away.
Compared to Plum Island on Massachusetts’ North Shore, where houses are literally toppling into the sea, the problems on the Vineyard seem almost manageable.
But looks can be deceiving.
Most immediately, those who are drawn to the edge should be mindful of the hazards of climbing on cliffs and driving on roads that are less solid than they appear. With pictures cropping up everywhere of people posing on Lucy Vincent, we worry both about safety and about hastening the loss of precious land. The Vineyard has a charmingly minimalistic approach to signage, however now is the time to take charge. The staggering price tag attached to the reconstruction of East Chop Drive should serve as a wake-up call to the enormity of what the Island will be facing in the not-so-distant future. Though Oak Bluffs officials hope that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will come through with much of the money, the competition for FEMA funds from cities and towns all along the nation’s coastline is only intensifying, and there is no guarantee that the Vineyard will get what it needs.
Coastal erosion is hardly new. It is the extension of the very forces that created the Vineyard beginning around 20,000 years ago. What the Island is dealing with today was predictable— and indeed predicted — even if the timeline has sped up in recent years.
We can’t stop it, and even our ability to slow it is limited. But we can plan for it, and the sooner we do, the better off we will be.