Storm breaches Norton Point Beach
Chappaquiddick Island is an island for real
The one-two punch of crashing storm-driven ocean waves and powerful spring tides knocked open a breach in Norton Point Beach that one observer described as significant and growing. Chappaquiddick, the easternmost community on Martha's Vineyard, is now an island in name as well as spirit.
With the barrier beach route closed, travel between Chappaquiddick and Edgartown is possible only on the small private vehicle ferry that regularly crosses Edgartown Harbor.
Speaking from Norton Point by telephone Tuesday afternoon, Chris Kennedy, regional director for The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the conservation organization that manages the county owned beach, said, "I can tell you that this is a significant breach. There is a lot of water going through."
Mr. Kennedy said the breach in the narrow barrier beach was about 100 yards across and growing.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Kennedy reported that the breach was getting wider and deeper. He said the beach is closed to vehicles and advised against anyone trying to venture out on the sand because beach conditions are hazardous.
Historically, storm breaches have occurred with some regularity in the two-mile long barrier beach that separates relatively shallow and normally placid Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
In February 2001, then County beach manager Robert Culbert expected a breach to occur, after erosion had narrowed the beach to a width of 100-200 feet near the eastern end. But the beach came through that winter without a breach and remained intact until this week.
Norton Point has been breached during other storms, including the gale of January 1886, the 1938 hurricane, Hurricane Edna in 1954, and Hurricane Bob in 1991.
The breach creates something of a hardship for Chappy residents who rely on the beach route, particularly during the late night and early morning hours when the ferry does not operate.
"It is kind of a hardship," said Chappy resident Skip Bettencourt yesterday. "Some people rely on driving the beach across to get back and forth."
Mr. Bettencourt, a volunteer firefighter, said the beach changes so there is no way to tell how long it would remain open. But he said, "Right now it looks like a pretty big opening. I think it is going to be open for a while. I'd guess it is about 200 yards across and it is pretty deep."
The widening opening as seen from the Chappy side on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of TTOR
Edgartown Harbormaster Charlie Blair said that depending on how long the opening remains, the newly created channel would have a noticeable effect on Edgartown Harbor. Based on past experience he expects "current, a lot more current, maybe up to a knot more and that may not sound like a lot but it is."
He said that if it lasts for any time the opening would also mean cleaner water and prove beneficial for shellfishing.
Speaking to The Times on Tuesday, Mr. Blair said he had not yet inspected the cut due to wave overwash which made beach travel hazardous. He said he could not even guess how long the cut would last.
"Some openings last for 20 years and some only last for a few weeks," he said. "I know that it will slowly migrate down to the eastward because they all do."
A chart dated 1894 shows the 1886 breach that connected Katama Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. Image NOAA
Mr. Blair, a former charter fisherman, spent his youth growing up on the waters of Katama Bay during a period when the beach was open for a considerable length of time. He remembers a channel marked with pine trees used by boats up to 30 feet in length. "You could be at Wasque in minutes," said Mr. Blair, referencing a popular fishing spot off the southeast corner of the Vineyard.
Mr. Blair, who has supervised a number of projects using the town-owned dredge, said man's efforts are slight compared with the forces of nature at work on Norton Point. He said that had the town wanted to dredge an opening it would have required an extensive study and long state and federal permitting process. "In one night, Mother Nature not only got the permit but she did the job," said Mr. Blair. "The forces that are at work there are just amazing."
The sea washes through the newly created opening between Katama Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on Norton Point Beach on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of TTOR
Birds may benefit
TTOR, which manages more than six miles of beach on Chappaquiddick, took over management of Norton Point pursuant to a contract with Dukes County signed last year. With assistance from the town and volunteers from the Surfcasters Association, TTOR worked to clean up the beach and lay out trails in an effort to maintain the land route and protect shorebird nesting areas.
The recent storm washed away much of the beach grass and any semblance of a trail. Dave Belcher, TTOR Chappaquiddick superintendent, said that the breach comes as a big disappointment after so much hard work.
The cut, if it lasts, is expected to prove particularly attractive to surf fishermen. The area along the beach is noted for holding bluefish and striped bass.
Water pouring though the breach will carry baitfish and that will attract gamefish to the cut and Katama Bay. But the same conditions that created the opening may hinder fishermen from traveling along the beach to fish the cut.
Mr. Kennedy said the storm created new flat stretches of sand and gravel beach; perfect habitat for nesting shorebirds. That could result in summer beach closures to protect nesting piping plovers and terns. "It's going to be an interesting summer," he said.
A dolphin was a casualty of the storm. Photo by Skip Bettencourt
Forces at work
As part of a series on the Island's changing shoreline published in The Times (Feb. 8, "Norton Point Beach - the anatomy of a breach"), Jo-Ann Taylor, a coastal planner, recently described the forces at work along Norton Point.
Ms. Taylor wrote that at first glance, it would seem that the raging tumult on the Atlantic side surely must be responsible for cutting an opening through the beach. In fact, other forces are at work, and are revealed by close observation of a breach.
Vineyarder J. Gordon (Pete) Ogden III witnessed the breach wrought by Hurricane Edna in 1954 and wrote a detailed account in the journal Quaternary Research in 1974. The storm tide, he wrote, was receding from the ocean side but still flooding in the bay, so that the water level on the bay side was higher than on the ocean side. He saw a small "fault cliff" in the sand, stepped onto the lower part, and sank in up to his knees.
He watched successive waves widen and deepen the drop and the waters of Katama Bay follow retreating ocean waves and effect a complete breach of the beach.
The breach was made from the bay side, not from the ocean. Storm waves may spill over the top the beach, but the hydraulic head, or difference in height between the higher water level in Katama Bay and the lower water level on the ocean side, is what dumps millions of gallons of water out of the bay, tearing a wider and wider gap as it pours out. So, for all the thundering surf on the ocean side, only the noiseless power of gravity can tear open a barrier beach, wrote Ms. Taylor.