The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, venue for the 2022 Islands Coastal conference, was flooded not with water but with discussion of it Monday, as a veritable who’s who of regional coastal experts gathered for the first time in three years to discuss marshes, wetlands, seashores and more as the impacts of sea level rise become all the more urgent.

“It’s like getting the band back together” said Greg Berman of the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, a key organizer of the event along with Shannon Hulst, representatives from The Trustees, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, the Martha's Vineyard Commission and Steve McKenna of the state Office of Coastal Zone Management. The group described a series of false starts in reorganizing the conference over the pandemic years, with the relocation to the Film Society from their old venue at the Harbor View Hotel. “These are the most comfortable seats in town,” said Mr. McKenna.

A keystone address was delivered by Dr. Heather Goldstone, chief communications officer at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Her speech, Dr. Goldstone told the Gazette, aimed to push back against an overemphasis on technology as both cause of and solution to climate change: “It’s important that we realize that natural systems can contribute and be the most powerful solutions.”

While melting permafrost from climate change might increase carbon in the atmosphere, for instance, forest restoration might reduce it, she said.

Organizers Greg Berman and Steve McKenna. — Thomas Humphrey

The conference included of a series of talks from coastal experts with diverse experiences in climate, science and planning, Mr. Berman said, with topics on Monday’s agenda focusing on ways to manage flooding, erosion and sensitive marshland.

The slate of erosion experts included engineer John Ramsay, who described the technical aspects of erosion and shoaling at a beach in Chatham while Dr. Paige Hovenga, in a talk that involved complex computer modeling, investigated the more local problem of keeping artificial pond breaches open. Kristen Grubbs and Jane Varkonda, representing The Trustees of Reservations and Edgartown respectively, gave an update on a dune restoration project at Norton Point, which must navigate harsh coastal conditions and shifting sands on a daily basis.

“You can plan all you want but Mother Nature’s going to tell you something different,” said Ms. Varkonda of the project’s challenges. “Then you just have to find the sand and the money.” Ms. Varkonda predicted that such restoration projects might become unfeasible in the future as erosion further accelerates.  

Speakers on the topic of marshes, meanwhile, focused on solutions. Katherine A. Castagno, for instance, emphasized their value for coastal storm mitigation, while Rob Young hyped up their ability to clean water. “The wetlands are our kidneys,” he said.

Mr. Young has spent the past year mapping the areas where marshes around Sengekontacket Pond might migrate as sea levels rise. “Every living shoreline we build comes with an expiration date,” he said. “We have to make way for marshes.”

Although the talks from coastal experts highlighted the event, Mr. Berman said it was just as valuable for the time that participants spent outside the theater.

“The networking is as good as the conference,” said Mr. McKenna. “The coffee breaks are when it all gets done.” 

The conference ended with speakers looking toward future action that could be taken on climate change, including Martha’s Vineyard Commission climate planner Liz Durkee. It was time that Island institutions start planning for the inevitability of sea level rise, she said, for a “managed retreat from the coast.”