Warming trend heats up in Dukes County

Martha’s Vineyard is among the fastest-warming regions in the nation.

Climate change threatens the Cape and Islands' landscapes, particularly through sea level rise and erosion, which can clearly already be seen on the Aquinnah cliffs. — Gabrielle Mannino

Martha’s Vineyard is a hot spot — literally. 

Early last month, the Washington Post published a climate change report disclosing the fastest-warming states and counties in the nation, with Massachusetts and Dukes County ranked among the highest.

Shaded ruby red on a temperature change map, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, the Elizabeth Islands, and mid- to lower Cape represent some of the fastest-warming regions in the U.S., crossing the 2° Celsuis threshold — a critical point of reference determined in the 2015 Paris accord, where international leaders agreed the earth’s average temperature increases should stay “well below” 2° Celsius to avoid a host of “catastrophic changes,” the Washington Post reported.

Dukes County joins only 71 other counties in the nation to exceed the 2° Celsius mark. So why is Martha’s Vineyard warming so quickly? 


Guilty by association

Martha’s Vineyard is part of the Northeast region — the fastest-warming region in the nation. After Alaska, Rhode Island ranks as the fastest-warming U.S. state, followed by New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts. Rising temperatures are due in large part to warming winters. In many Northeast states, the average winter temperature from December through February now exceeds 0° Celsius, the temperature at which water freezes. Ponds and lakes aren’t freezing, snow melts quicker, and insects and pests aren’t dying off as they normally would. According to the U.S. Climate Data website, the average temperature in Edgartown in January 2019 was 0.5º Celsius (32.9ºF), and in February 2019, average temperature was 0.7ºC (33.3º F) — above freezing. 

The Northeast is also situated where it’s vulnerable to the vagaries of the Gulf Stream — an enormous warm current that travels up the East Coast from the Gulf of Mexico before making a turn toward Greenland and Europe. The Gulf Stream is part of a “global conveyor belt” of currents that transports heat around the world. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are the last, most northerly coastal North American islands that are influenced by the Gulf Stream, according to a 1973 “Looking at the Vineyard” Trustees report. And over the past few decades, scientists have observed a weakening Gulf Stream, which would “affect poleward heat transport, regional climate, and sea level rise along the East Coast,” a recent Real Climate report said. 

The Northeast is also experiencing less cloud cover, a result of fewer extratropical cyclones, according to an Advancing Earth and Space science report. Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to weaker cyclone activity, which decreases cloud cover, “giving rise to higher maximum temperature,” the report said. 


Local impact

The 2° Celsius threshold doesn’t always represent “cataclysmic change,” according to the Washington Post article. But it can threaten ecosystems, alter landscapes, and change livelihoods and cultures.

Sea level rise and erosion are of high concern on the Cape and Islands. Sea levels have exceeded the global average by approximately 12 inches since 1900, according to Massachusetts Wildlife Climate Action Tool. The Northeast is especially vulnerable to flooding because of its low-slope coastal areas. Projections suggest the region will experience sea level rise between 8 and 30 inches during the early 2000s, and between 18 and 72 inches by the end of the century. As stated in an August Letter to the Editor, Chappaquiddick’s coast is projected to rise by five feet in 65 to 100 years, and Norton Point, Wasque, and East Beach will become sandbars, as will the acreage from Cape Poge to the Gut, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projections.

The Island’s abundance of disease-carrying ticks is another example of how the region’s warming climate is changing the game. Warm weather and greenhouse gas emissions create higher levels of humidity in the atmosphere — a tick’s bread and butter. According to a study, deer ticks die faster when humidity is moderate (75 percent), and survive longer when the humidity is higher (85 to 90 percent). The Northeast is experiencing high levels of humidity, providing an environment conducive for tick survival — and higher incidences of Lyme disease across the region. 

Rising temperatures have also made way for the oyster disease dermo. Dermo is a parasite that kills oysters but does not harm people. It originated in the South, and exists along the Gulf Coast. It had a major spread to the Northeast and Martha’s Vineyard in the 1990s during a term of warm weather, “and now it’s here to stay,” said Emma Green-Beach of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. Green-Beach completed her master’s research on dermo in the early 2000s. “We haven’t seen any definitive changes in dermo levels in the past couple years, but over time, it will be exacerbated,” Green-Beach said. “[Dermo] likes it hot, and it likes it salty.”

Dermo exists in Edgartown Great Pond, Tisbury Great Pond, and Oyster Pond. “Our great ponds are shallow and sensitive to temperature changes,” Green-Beach said. “As they warm up in the summertime, we could see more dermo. If it’s accompanied by periods of drought, the ponds will get saliter.” 

Martha’s Vineyard ponds are also at risk of acidification, according to Green-Beach. 

“As waters become more acidic because they’re absorbing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the pH in water goes down,” Green-Beach said. “Tiny changes in pH are important.”
Low pH makes if hard to calcify shells to make new shellfish. In an effort to mitigate acidification effects, the M.V. Shellfish group launched a shell recycle program, where they collect shells, let them age until they’re clean, and release them back into Great Ponds for restoration. “Adding shells helps buffer the water in small scales,” Green-Beach said. “It provides hard calcium for baby oysters.” 

Oysters are a “keystone species” on Martha’s Vineyard, as their existence provides a habitat for other organisms. “When you have clusters of oysters, they make huge reefs where fish, urchins, crabs, and all sorts of plants and animals can live,” Green-Beach said. “Little fish can hide there. Big fish can hunt there. Oysters create a hard and complex structure on an otherwise muddy, flat bottom.” Oysters also filter water, and adults can filter up to 50 gallons a day, according to Green-Beach.
Algae bloom is another climate-related issue for Martha’s Vineyard ponds, notably Edgartown Great Pond. Algae bloom refers to a rapid increase of algae in freshwater or saltwater ponds that dominates an ecosystem. It becomes dangerous when the algae dies, as it sinks and blankets the bottom of the pond. It is broken down by bacteria which take oxygen out of the pond that many organisms need to survive, according to the Great Pond Foundation website. Algae bloom is often caused by rising nutrient levels, also known as eutrophication. Algae loves hot weather and nutrient-laden stormwater, so as the region sees hotter days and more rainfall, algae bloom could become more present. 

Climate change is also changing the landscape for invasive plant species. “Invasive species are thriving and getting a jump on the natives in the spring,” said Suzan Bellincampi, director of Mass Audubon Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Phragmites, honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and spotted knapweed, among others, are examples of invasive species. “The list goes on,” Bellincampi said. “That is why they are invasive. They take over.” A Smithsonian Magazine article cites how nonnative species are changing their flowering schedule to align with the longer seasons, while ingidenous species are much slower to react to the new conditions. 

Bellincampi also touched on how warming waters are impacting aquatic life. “Cold water fish are moving to deeper waters, and species from warmer climates are now moving in to New England waters,” she said. “Locally, we are seeing warmer temperatures in our ponds and increased algae blooms, decreased oxygen due to higher temperatures, and reduction in diversity as organisms can’t tolerate higher temperatures.” 

Ocean surface temperatures are warming two to three times faster than the global average, according to a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) report. The warming, as Bellincampi noted, changes the distribution of multiple species in the U.S. Leatherback sea turtles, for example, migrate to Northeast waters to feed on gelatinous zooplankton. Climate-driven changes in temperature, salinity, and other oceanographic features are likely to affect the distribution of their prey, leading to fewer leatherbacks in the region, according to the WHOI report. 

Warming oceans affect shark migration patterns, although great whites, which are most common in the Northeast region, are “less impacted by climate change,” Massachusetts Marine Fisheries shark scientist Gregory Skomal told National Geographic. Unlike other species of sharks, great whites can regulate their own body temperature (are endothermic) instead of moving to warmer or colder waters. But Skomal noted that shark migration routes could be impacted by climate change, as great whites conserve more energy when in warmer waters.


What now?

The commonwealth of Massachusetts is considering a $1.3 billion bond issue to provide infrastructure betterment to ward off impending losses due to rising sea levels. The bill would implement the GreenWorks program to help Massachusetts communities address threats of rising sea levels and floodwaters, as well as damage that’s already been done. The bill also includes a grant program that municipalities could apply for each year to fund specific projects — two or more towns could apply jointly, according to the bill. 

Martha’s Vineyard also has an Island Climate Action Network (ICAN), a grassroots group that meets throughout the year to discuss, implement action, and create an agenda around climate change. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Island Grown Initiative, Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee, Vineyard Conservation Society, and Vineyard Power are among other Island groups committed to tackling the warming climate. 

Martha’s Vineyard tracks coastal oceanographic and meteorological data through the Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory, which is operated by WHOI. The observatory is located a mile offshore of South Beach and provides real-time, archived data. 


  1. I think they should just take a sharpie and color that “ruby red” area on the temperature change map blue. Then it would be all a-ok, and America would be great again.
    It’s so simple , even a stable genius could do it.

    • Lol, Don. Trump will get some lacky from management at NOAA to agree with him that climate change is a hoax and have that cowardly lacky issue an unsigned statement saying Trump is correct, that WaPo is fake news and climate change is baloney, although every NOAA scientist, past and present, knows that is wrong. Then all the Evangelicals who support Trump, the ones who think the Ten COMMANDMENTS are mere suggestions, can embarrass themselves and tell the Washington Post research journalists and everyone who understands science how embarrassed they should be for not believing Trump’s outrageous lies, which they themselves don’t actually believe but really, really, really want to. Trump demanded the National Park Service find evidence to increase the size of crowds at his inauguration but there were wasn’t any, so he got his cowardly lacky, Sean Spicer to lie. This was before Trump discovered Sharpies could have been used to add more people the actual photographic evidence. There are several instances of Trump ordering investigations to “prove” his lies– regarding voter fraud and immigration, for instance, but when there is no evidence Trump never admits he was wrong or apologizes. The damage is done, though, and the lies take on a life of their own. Trump supporters repeat and repeat them, even pathetically using an unsigned NOAA statement as evidence that the lying liar Trump did not lie and mark up a weather map. Ignoring ‘Thou shalt not lie’ isn’t good enough for some Trump supporters. They insist instead on supporting and spreading lies the biggest liar in the country tells. Trump and his supporters shall lie until lies become the altenative truth that their lying souls want to live with.

      Or, the people dealing with the realities of scienced and climate change could simply be like the regional high school here and hire consultants from MARS to deal with the problems.

  2. The same people who told us that running water up the nose of the 9/11 mastermind is torture, now gave us a 7 hour Democrat debate last week on climate change. The candidates want no fossil fuels, no coal, no nuclear, no meat and mandated electric vehicles without telling us where the electricity will come from. That laughable CNN program was indeed torture.

    • Andrew– your comment ” The candidates want no fossil fuels, no coal, no nuclear, no meat and mandated electric vehicles without telling us where the electricity will come from.” Is a complete and unadulterated lie.

      • You didn’t watch the climate debate. Have you seen Bernie talk about population control through abortions in third world countries. Sounds racist to me but the audience agreed heartily. Existential threats everywhere. No plastic straws, no cheeseburgers and no fracking inPennsylvania. That Marcellus shale deposit has given jobs to thousands. Good
        Way to get those electoral votes. You Dems are doing everything to lose in 2020.

  3. What is the perfect temperature for the earths thermostat? I always wondered what the “”right”” temperature for the earth should be. Like LA when it is always 72.

  4. When can we get back to the glacier days… carve out a new island since everyone is responsible for the glaciers melting with their oil furnaces. IF they really wanted to have less fossile fuel use, they would make electricity cheaper than oil to heat with. But they don’t. They want hysteria to bring in a carbon tax to fund a global government for the super elite to control all people as slaves. Actually they would like to kill off 90% of us and keep just a few to serve them drinks and whatnot that the robots can’t make, yet.

  5. 0.04% of the earths atmosphere is made up of Co2, and that 0.04% is going to destroy the planet? Seriously? The rest of the atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent Oxygen. Most 0xygen comes from ocean phytoplankton. Trees and plants eat CO2 in order to produce oxygen. We should love CO2 not hate it. Anyone who has seen the movie Ice Age knows that the earth has cooled and warmed many times and before SUV,s and cow flatulance. 9 year olds know that. The Dems want to spend trillions and trillions in order to quell an existential threat and thereby control us—- what we eat, what we drive, how much we spend, complete govt control while the elites fly around in Gulfstreams. Focusing on plastic straws instead of recognizing Dow Chemical for spending billions on research to make plastics decompose. No way, Corporations are greedy say the candidates. If you folks watched the climate debate really you would shake your head as to how looney the candidates were.

    • Andrew– what percentage of Fentanyl do you think you need in your blood stream to cause a fatal reaction ? . I will tell you it is much less than .04 %
      How would you feel if your body went up 2 degrees c. ?
      how about 6 c. — that would be fatal, would it not ?

    • Andrew, it’s funny to listen to a person who does not believe in or respect accepted science try to speak about a science that is beyond him. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Further, you are in no position to determine what is “loony” since you voted for the looniest toon of them all. Bugs Bunny is far less loony than Trump who is now spending his time, as President, trash tweeting John Legend and Chrissy Teagan. You must be so proud of that lying lunatic.

    • Andrew, did you see this just now?
      “NOAA’s chief scientist will investigate why agency backed Trump over it’s experts on Dorian, email shows” ~breaking news from WaPo
      What were you saying about people embarrassing themselves?

      • Jackie CO2 levels today are 410 ppm in the atmosphere. Naval submarines that stay under the sea for months at a time are 5000 ppm. Can you explain why they are not in danger.? Instead of ad hominem let’s have a science debate.

    • Andrew– your example of co 2 levels in a submarine is hilariously stunningly poor–
      they are under water all that time after all– can you explain to me why they don’t drown ?
      I am smart enough to know that if I am under water for even 15 minutes, I will be dead.
      I simply don’t believe anyone can be under the sea for months at a time and survive.
      Are reading something about co2 being dangerous to individual health that no else seems to know, or are you just making up a whole new lie about what scientist are saying ?
      Better watch out for that faucet in your kitchen sink– under the right conditions , water will come out of it– and any 9 year old knows that water is dangerous and you can drown in it. That’s simple science–
      I have no problem with a science debate– but please, at least try to keep it rational.

      • Don, this was a distraction from his post telling liberals how embarrassed they should be for not accepting Trump’s Sharpie artwork as some kind of reality. Desperate times call for unscientific, desperate measures, as Trump has proven with his Sharpie! Trump followers don’t know how to excuse this pathetic lie so they do things like talk about submarines.

      • Andrew–my father survived the sinking of a submarine in ww 2 and was a pow in Japan until the end of the war. Read “Back from the deep” by Carl Lavo.
        So that means climate change is real. What more proof do you need ?

  6. I looked outside before I read this. It looks we’re going to have a nice day. That’s about as much as I know about climate. I look at the sunny side of life. This was such a well-written article by Brittany. (It was composed so much better than any police report I ever read.) And the photograph of the cliffs? Magnificant. Look how the lovely blues from low tide bounce off the face of the once gloomy gray-colored cliffs. Have a nice day.

  7. The extinction of the solar panels in front of my house sounds like a good idea for me. (That’ll happen after the Democrats eat the last t-bone from one of those cows I’m looking at too.) Whoever the money-hungry geniuses who convinced the Town of Edgartown to kick out the butterflies… didn’t factor in the Einstein relativity of sunshine. They didn’t think about the fog. What happened to accountability? Open the books and let us see the savings…

  8. Andrew, can you scientifically explain why Trump took a Sharpie and defaced a hurricane projection map to falsely include Alabama? Can you also explain why you instantly fell for the false and anonymous NOAA statement that was, in reality, a result of the Secretary of Commerce’s threats to fire high-up NOAA employees if they didn’t support the Liar-in-Chief’s artwork? Enjoy yourself talking about the minutiae of submarines. That does not hide the fact that you tried to pass off yet another lie from Trump as truth. If you simply stop spreading what was obviously a pathetic lie from trump you won’t find yourself in this position of trying to distract from what you’ve already embarrassingly said. Attempts to engage me in a discussion about submarines is, you know, sad. I’m sure you wish you could delete your comment about what NOAA supposedly and very unscientifically had to say on the matter.

    • Jackie– climate deniers will go to great lengths to “prove” climate change is a “hoax”.
      Like the one ice core sample out of thousands they have collected in Antarctica that was actually real. But give trump some credit– those sharpies are kind of big, and you really gotta have a lot of “testicular fortitude” to put that one out there for hundreds of millions of people to laugh about.
      Perhaps his campaign slogan should be “testicular fortitude and a sharpie–imagine the possibilities”

  9. I’m warming up for a bidder from a fiction writer who’s dreaming up a good plot. My plot would work great. (I borrowed 12,500 from gullible parents and never paid them back.) If the genre is about the life and scary times of a flight instructor in a white and red plane doing the go-arounds I see out my window. Sharpen the #4 pencil and we’ll chat…

    • PC– Fred Trump must have been really gullible.
      Congrats on the Obama’s moving into your neighborhood, by the way..

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