It’s been five and a half years since a ferocious northeaster tore open the barrier beach that formerly connected Chappaquiddick to Edgartown at the Katama end. Today the Norton Point breach, as it is known, continues to wreak havoc on the southeastern corner of Chappaquiddick in the form of dramatic, relentless erosion.
Wasque Reservation, that stunningly beautiful four hundred-acre property that was placed in conservation under the ownership of The Trustees of Rervations in the late 1960s largely thanks to the grass-roots efforts of the noted conservationist Mary Wakeman, is a changed place.
The wide beach where shore fishermen once stood shoulder to shoulder, casting into the riptides for hungry blues, is gone, replaced by a ragged cliff littered with trees and rubble that have been uprooted by the constant force of the tides. The fishermen’s parking lot where an elevated boardwalk once wound through the marshland and ended shoreside on a sandy beach, has long since washed away, along with the sandy beach.
Last week the Edgartown conservation commission gave emergency approval for coconut fiber logs to be placed against the bank in front of the Richard and Jennifer Schifter house where erosion now threatens to undermine the large house built a few years ago on the promontory at the corner of Wasque. Engineers hired by the Schifters believe that the erosion, which has been claiming a foot a day in recent weeks and months, could reach the Schifter home in a few short months if left unchecked.
In their filing with the conservation commission the engineers called the erosion “unprecedented and unanticipated.”
In fact there is ample historic precedent for erosion in this area, where breaches in the barrier beach have occurred naturally for many decades. A Gazette reader reminded us this week that rates of erosion at Wasque Point following a breach through the barrier beach at Norton Point were well documented in a report by J. Gordon (Pete) Ogden 3rd, published in Quartenary Research 4 in 1974. Mr. Ogden found that Wasque Point lost some seven hundred and seventy feet of earthen embankment during successive openings that spanned the late 1940s and late 1960s. Photographs of the Wasque coastline in the late 1960s show the same process at work then as now. Mr. Ogden’s research also shows the general retreat of the coastline along Norton Point and Wasque from the late 1700s onward.
Based on history, the erosion will not stop until the breach closes, which could take five to ten more years.
But as we stand in awe of the forces of nature at work on the extreme southeastern corner of Chappaquiddick, we wonder about the impact of larger environmental changes on the shoreline of the Island. Climate change and rising sea levels are no longer distant academic concepts but real facts of life, and the Island is in the front lines. Severe erosion along the south side of the Vineyard not only has the Schifters worried about the saftey of their Wasque home but also Chilmark town leaders pondering the fate of Lucy Vincent beach which has been carved into new pieces in the last three years by the Atlantic Ocean.
Many new homes have been built near the shore since Mr. Ogden wrote his report more than three decades ago. As the sea continues to encroach on the Island’s outermost places, many will be at risk.