We adapted to climate change and sea level rise

"Lucy Vincent Cyanotype Triptych" Courtesy the Martha's Vineyard Hospital Permanent Art Collection.

It is late December 2050, and we on Martha’s Vineyard have seen so many changes over the past three decades! Back in 2020, I was finishing up a 30-plus-year career as a coastal land manager with The Trustees of Reservations, and I, like many, was alarmed at the changes we saw on our coastline. A warming climate was beginning to accelerate rising sea levels, and we could already see the upcoming impacts to our way of life if we stood idly by.

We knew that houses and roads built too close to our coastal banks, such as at East Chop, Squibnocket, and Wasque were in danger of ending up on the beaches below due to accelerated erosion. We also knew that we could not save every house, every road, and every beach parking lot that was in harm’s way. We were forced to make difficult decisions that would impact homeowners, our community, and our visitors. We had to adopt a new way of looking at sea level rise, and ask ourselves, How would we work with rising seas, and where would we stand and fight, or retreat? We decided early on that our historic downtown buildings, roads, and features were too important to our Island culture to lose, but other areas which were large and mostly unbuilt could be allowed to retreat.

With this mindset we moved forward, using nature-based solutions wherever possible, and avoiding the construction of permanent stone seawalls, revetments, and jetties, which merely stole nourishing beach sand from one neighbor and gave it to another. Mother Nature had already provided us with many of the tools we would need to modify sea level rise. Our coastal salt marshes, coastal shorelines, and barrier beaches were Nature’s way to mitigate the force and inundation of storms and rising seas. Even the sand we dredged from our bays, harbors, and channels could be used to augment the most vulnerable beaches, to slow down the inevitable rise of the seas. We mapped out storm inundation routes near vulnerable access points to our downtowns and working waterfronts. We then installed tide gates, water culverts under vulnerable roads, and even installed louvered sea gates which could be raised and lowered in response to king tides and storms to prevent downtown flooding. Vulnerable roads were raised in height by several feet, and towns adopted strict regulations to prevent new construction within the coastal zones most at risk from sea level rise. For existing houses and roads, our community regulators required a plan to be submitted for approval before new permits were issued for repairs or modifications. Those plans would show what the owner planned to do if the structure were endangered by sea level rise. Climate change and the realities of sea level rise became a forethought, not an afterthought.

So here we are in 2050. Our beloved Island is a bit smaller than it was in 2020, but we are prepared for the future far better than we were then. It took a huge effort on the part of our citizens to realize that sea level rise cannot be stopped just on Martha’s Vineyard. It also took the efforts of our leaders in Washington, and nations across the globe, to adopt enforceable laws to reduce carbon emissions, and to continue to develop new technologies to remove excess carbon from our soils, our air, and our lives. Climate change is here. We are a long way from ending the impacts of sea level rise, but we are far better positioned today, thanks in large part to the forward thinking of our leaders and community members decades ago. 

Chris Kennedy is the islands superintendent at The Trustees of Reservations.