In April 2007, a one-two punch of storm-driven ocean waves and powerful spring tides knocked open a cut in Norton Point Beach, the two-mile long barrier beach that had linked Katama to Chappaquiddick. The result was two long narrow spits of sand stretching east and west toward one another.
Three years later, natural forces continue to shape the barrier beach that protects Edgartown Harbor from the Atlantic Ocean. The cut is migrating eastward to Wasque Point where history suggests it will eventually fill in and rejoin Chappy to Katama.
But there is no way to predict how long that process will take or how much Chappaquiddick beach will be lost before it occurs.
Until it does, the significant erosion now taking place poses day-to-day challenges for The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the private nonprofit conservation organization that manages Norton Point Beach and much of the outer Chappaquiddick beachfront. TTOR managers must balance shorebird protection, visitor recreational use, and public safety.
Wasque Point and the Norton Point cut are popular destinations for fishermen and beachgoers. Both locations are known for strong tidal currents and the striped bass and bluefish that moving water attracts.
David Babson, TTOR Chappaquiddick superintendent, told The Times he was forced to temporarily close the road that previously allowed four-wheel vehicles with TTOR permits to access the cut from the east side, due to dramatic changes in the beach.
Mr. Babson said there is little left of the road that once led from a tire deflation lot to several trails and the sand beach. He said he worries that two-wheel drive vehicle drivers could easily enter the narrow roadway and become stuck in the sand. Or worse, a vehicle might tumble off the edge where the waves are now cutting into the beach.
“When a breach occurs, it is clearly unpredictable at best, and as the barrier beach environment is dynamic, subject to constant change from winds, waves, tides, and storms, one can never tell what the beach will do next,” Mr. Babson said in an email to The Times. “This breach cycle seems to be particularly severe further west of Wasque Point, in front of the deflation lot, as it is cutting into sod layers that don’t appear to have been touched by any recent breach cycle.”
Mr. Babson said that as the barrier beach that once protected the deflation lot is washed away, the powerful ocean tides and waves are quickly digging into the base of the remaining sod cliff face, undermining the rooted vegetative layers and rapidly increasing the amount of land that is eroding.
Mr. Babson said The Trustees think it is unsafe for two-wheel drive vehicles to access the deflation lot as they were previously able to do, because there no longer is room for drivers to park or turn around. He said it is possible that the addition of summer staff by Memorial Day weekend will allow TTOR to provide access to permitted four-wheel drive vehicles to continue to access Norton Point Beach from Chappy.
But that may only be temporary, he said. “As the breach is far from healed, and the erosion continues, it does seem imminent that the remaining deflation lot will eventually wash away, and with it, access to Chappy’s Norton Point Beach,” he said.
For now, the road to the deflation lot is closed. Visitors are asked to pay attention to signs and use the swimming beach parking lot when they visit the southern beaches on Wasque Reservation.
Chris Kennedy, TTOR regional director, said summer southwesterlies winds typically stabilize the beach and add sand to the beach profile. For now, he said the current closure is considered to be only temporary.
“What happens over the next five years is the bigger concern,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Jo-Ann Taylor, a coastal planner with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission whose background includes oceanographic research, said what is happening is nothing new.
Ms. Taylor said sand will continue to build up on the Edgartown side of the cut, and the opening will move east until the inlet wraps around Swan Pond, a small body of water located behind the barrier beach at Wasque Point, creating an inlet.
The force of the water moving through that inlet will erode the bluffs overlooking Wasque at a rate of about one foot per day, she said, “That’s how Swan Pond was made.
“We’re probably talking about 15 years, and we are about three years into it,” she said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”