The coast with the most

Martha’s Vineyard hosts third coastal conference.



Folks from all walks of life, and all walks of the Northeast, gathered at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown on Wednesday, June 6, for the third biennial Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Conference.

The all-day conference provided an opportunity for individuals in science, research, politics, academia, and the general public to come together and learn about the projects being done to protect and monitor the Island’s coasts.

Massachusetts is an important region, specifically the Cape and Islands. The region is on the frontline for damage done by storms, hurricanes, and nor’easters. The actions we take set an example for the rest of the region, and experts in the field shared the latest in their research.

Climate change took center stage at the conference. Jeff Donnelly is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and kicked off the conference with a keynote presentation.

“We’re looking at warmer temperatures today than we’ve seen in years,” Donnelly told a crowded room. There were no empty seats.

His talk was called “A Perfect Storm: The Collision of Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Coastal Population Growth.”

Donnelly explained that at our current rate, the world will warm close to 6° Fahrenheit by the year 2100. If we do something, we can limit that about 4°. Donnelly’s research references these warming patterns to figure out how hurricanes will be affected.

Using models and simulations, Donnelly was able to determine that Category 4 hurricanes are becoming exceedingly rare, but categories 2 and 3 will become much more frequent. Donnelly said we can expect Category 2 storms every seven years, and Category 3 storms every 33 years.

“All research points to more frequent hurricanes,” Donnelly said. “In the South Pacific, they’ll actually get fewer, but not in the West North Pacific, or the Western North Atlantic.”

Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012. It caused $66 billion in damage, and 148 fatalities, most of them to the south of New England, according to Donnelly.

“And it wasn’t even at hurricane strength when it hit the shore,” he said. “So why did we get so much damage from Sandy? It’s us. We put ourselves in harm’s way.”

Population growth is a huge factor as to why hurricanes cost us more than they have in the past. Donnelly compared Hurricane Sandy to a “proper hurricane,” or the one that hit New Jersey and New York in 1821. Less damage was done in 1821, because there were fewer people around for it to affect.

“If a storm like that struck us today, we’d have huge losses — over $100 billion,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly honed in on some good news. “We have lots of tools,” he said. “And hurricanes are short-lived. They’re gone in a day or two, and we know when they’re coming. We have the opportunity to plan for them, and get critical infrastructure and people out of harm’s way.”


In our backyard

Steve Elhar was the first speaker during the “Coastal Research” portion of the conference. Elhar is another senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. His presentation was called “Storm-Induced Shoreline Changes on Martha’s Vineyard.”

“Let’s break this down to right here,” Elhar said. “What’s happening right now in our backyard?”

Elhar’s talk got to the bottom of what moves the sand on our coasts. He posed questions for the audience: “Is it waves or currents? Daily tides? Storms? Hurricanes? Nor’easters?”

Sand movement affects places like Katama Bay and Norton Point, where the shoreline shifts. Elhar’s talk focused on Norton Point from 2011 to 2012 when its shoreline grew about 500 meters.

“It could have been Hurricane Irene with her honking waves,” Elhar said. “Or it could have been from the winter’s nor’easters.”

Using models and simulations — which Elhar reminded the audience to be always be skeptical of, although he proved his accurate — he and his research assistant Britt Raubenheimer were able to determine waves from hurricanes move sediment with high energy but short duration, and waves from nor’easters move sediment with lower energy but with more frequency.

“Hurricane Irene moved a lot of sand,” Elhar said. “But the five nor’easters we had moved more. If you’re worried about hurricanes in the future, I’m more worried about nor’easters.”

After the lunch break, the conference broke into sessions located in different rooms. One room hosted presentations related to vulnerability, assessment, and planning, and the other room hosted presentations about marine renewable energy.

In the second session of the conference, presentations focused on identifying funding opportunities as well as water quality, impacts, and management. The conference closed with a panel discussion with Bret Stems of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), Bruce Carlisle of Massachusetts Coastal Management, Adam Turner of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and Jeremy Houser of the Vineyard Conservation Society. Liz Durkee, a conservation agent in Oak Bluffs, moderated the panel discussion.

This year’s conference was sponsored by the state Coastal Zone Management office, the Woods Hole Sea Grant program, Barnstable County, and the town of Oak Bluffs. The Harbor View Hotel provided two rooms to host this year’s conference, allowing more space for speakers and presentations throughout the day.



  1. And what happens when local waters warm? Lobster and food fish move north. Wave bye-bye to those industries.

      • If the water temperature is no longer amenable to a species, the species will move. If the food source for a species doesn’t move at the same time to the new location, that species will go extinct.

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