In the fullness of time, coastal scientists say, Martha’s Vineyard will disappear back into the ocean and new islands will form on what is now Georges Bank. It is part of a grand cycle of sediment redistribution, where land is not lost, but simply transported from one spot to another.
Small comfort for those of us who call this Island home, and smaller still for those who live on the very edges where geological time is quickly becoming real time. Though there is still some debate over the rate, almost everyone agrees that sea level rise — the main cause of coastal erosion — has accelerated and will continue to do so in the years ahead.
The drama this spring of the Schifter house at Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick quickly became the focal point of discussion of coastal erosion on the Vineyard. Certainly the story was compelling: after watching the bluff in front of their home crumble at a rate of almost a foot a day over the stormy winter, the wealthy homeowners literally had the structure lifted and moved two hundred and seventy five feet back from the sea.
But as the special report on coastal erosion in today’s Gazette makes clear, erosion is not just a problem for the rich. It is an issue that affects everyone who pays taxes, enjoys our beaches, rides our scenic roads, uses our harbors or just appreciates the slim silhouette of a lighthouse against the sky.
The Harris Poll commissioned by the Vineyard Gazette this spring found that sixty four per cent of a combined sample of full-time and seasonal residents ranked coastal erosion as their top concern for the Island’s future.
In today’s special report, in the August issue of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine and in a new multimedia section of our website called Living on the Edge, our writers, photographers and editors begin to examine the causes of coastal erosion and its multiple manifestations on the Vineyard. So far we have tried to lay out the issues; in subsequent weeks, months and probably years, we will try to identify workable solutions.
The report examines five sections of the Vineyard coastline, including Wasque, which are facing imminent crises as the result of the changing shoreline. Each story highlights a different set of challenges.
In a thorough review of the Island’s geological history, reporter Tom Dunlop learned that the seas around the Vineyard had been in something of a quiescent period until about 125 years ago, when the rate of sea level rise increased from three feet per thousand years to more than a foot in the last century. If the rate triples again, as many are predicting, or if the current pattern of strong winter storms intensifies, the areas of the Island already in crisis could expand significantly.
It is humbling to compare our situation with that of other coastal communities that have been ravaged by a succession of damaging storms, beginning with Hurricane Katrina. If erosion seems a far less dire problem on the Vineyard, where large swaths of the shoreline remain undeveloped, the question of how to address it is just as complex. We are challenged by our particular geology, the mix of public and private land, the existence of six different town governments, the value of our ponds and shoals to various fisheries, our environmental consciousness and our growing understanding that traditional efforts to forestall erosion in one place often have unintended consequences elsewhere.
In the course of reporting, several themes recurred. There are no permanent solutions. Short-term remediation is costly. Action often waits until a crisis is acute. Still, the clearest lesson seems to be that collaborative efforts yield the best results.
Understanding a problem is the first step in addressing it. In this, the beginning of an ongoing project on coastal erosion, we hope to start a community conversation about how to work together on what one coastal historian has called “one of the defining issues of the twenty-first century.”
We invite you to join the conversation.