‘Adapt to the Impact’

Second climate solutions talk breaks down adaptation strategies.


At least one foot of sea level rise is expected by the year 2040 — a mere 20 years away — Oak Bluffs conservation agent Liz Durkee reminded a group at the West Tisbury library gathered Tuesday for the second in a series of six talks about climate solutions on Martha’s Vineyard.

Tuesday’s talk, “Adapt to the Impact,” focused on action that reduces the community’s vulnerability to rising sea level, stronger storms, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion. The same talk will happen Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Oak Bluffs library from 2:30 to 3:30 pm.

The Island has four major lifelines: the Steamship Authority, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the Chappy Ferry, and Hariph’s Creek Bridge and Herring Creek overpass, which are Aquinnah access points. If any of these areas are inundated by rising sea levels or storm surges, residents are at risk of isolation and losing access to medical treatment. Durkee pitched three strategies for adaptation: Armor, accommodate, and retreat. 

Armoring is the practice of using physical structures to protect shorelines from coastal erosion. While it’s “generally not a good idea,” as waves bounce back and erode existing beaches, armors can protect roads, homes, and buildings, as they do on the North Bluff seawall between Oak Bluffs Harbor and the Steamship Authority wharf. The town recently received a grant from the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program to rebuild the beach, according to Durkee. (Just hours after Durkee’s presentation, Oak Bluffs voters approved the town’s share of that grant at a special town meeting.)

Accommodation strategies point to elevating structures and homes, raising roads, changing zones, beach nourishment, and addressing stormwater. Durkee cited solutions from the Dutch, who use waterfront parks to channel stormwater flooding where they want it to go. Using berms and underwater basins, waterfront parks are designed to keep water from breaching the park’s boundaries. Boston is planning waterfront climate-resilient parks instead of seawall structures, according to Durkee. “My favorite thing about this strategy is it involves the community,” Durkee said. 

Retreat refers to getting out of harm’s way, and letting nature take its course. Examples include moving to higher ground, abandoning coastal roads, and eliminating new construction in flood zones. Durkee displayed a quote from the book “Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America’s Shores”’: “Building homes or businesses and any large buildings in risk zones is a disfavor to the next generation.” The Squibnocket parking lot retreat and new causeway, as well as moving Gay Head Lighthouse inland, are examples of retreat in practice on the Island. 

“We’re overdue for a big hurricane,” Durkee said, before referencing the first climate solution talk, where West Tisbury emergency management director Russell Hartenstine asked everyone to consider their individual emergency preparedness strategies. In addition to hurricanes, there’s an increased risk for droughts, wildfire, and heavy rainfall in the region. For droughts, Durkee recommends limited lawn irrigation, water conservation, capturing rainfall for watering plants, planting native, drought-tolerant plants, and using mulch to retain soil moisture. For wildfires, a specific concern in Chilmark, West Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown, the State Forest has a specific wildfire plan, and an Island-wide management plan is in the works. Increased rainfall adaptation strategies point to the need for green infrastructure, which can include rain gardens (a depressed area in the landscape that collects rainwater from roofs), bioswales (linear channels, typically vegetated or mulched, designed to concentrate stormwater runoff while removing debris and pollution), and porous pavement (pavement with an underlying stone reservoir to catch precipitation and surface runoff). An Oak Bluffs stormwater management plan includes a bioswale, according to Durkee. Individual adaptation can include planting trees and shrubs to absorb and filter rainwater, eliminating hard surfaces like driveways, and picking up dog poop before it gets washed into ponds. 

A changing climate means changing ecosystems. “Plants are moving into zones where temperatures suit them,” Durkee said. “Plants are changing.” Durkee said saltmarshes are at risk, and if they get inundated, “we’ll lose their flood control,” she said. Salt marsh restoration projects are becoming increasingly crucial. The Friends of Sunset Lake, a group dedicated to protecting Sunset Park (across the street from Oak Bluffs Harbor) has applied for funding for a restoration project, and Durkee said it’s good to see community-led initiatives. 

Food and agriculture will also take a hit with changing weather patterns. “Crops are affected by weather impact,” Durkee said. “Corn and tomatoes may have trouble. Blueberries may have trouble.” Regenerative agriculture and no-till farming present enormous opportunities for adaptation. 

Durkee closed the presentation with impacts on the local economy, noting that real estate and tourism will inevitably be affected.
“A North Carolina study on climate change and tourism shows that the pressure of weather-related issues can deter people from visiting resort communities,” Durkee said. The Island can adapt by becoming more self-sufficient, producing more food and energy, and introducing climate adaptation jobs that address coastal restoration, green infrastructure, and sustainable landscaping. 

“We’re a hardy bunch,” Durkee said of the community. “Climate change may challenge that to some degree, but big challenges offer big opportunities.”