Martha’s Vineyard issued stark warning

Trustees’ ‘State of the Coast’ report points to climate change impacts on coastal communities.

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Climate change planner for the MVC, Liz Durkee, presents at the State of the Coast unveiling. — Lucas Thors

Coastal erosion and flooding have always affected Martha’s Vineyard, but in the coming years, those problems will be exacerbated by rising sea levels and stronger and more frequent storm events, according to a new report. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the Trustees of Reservations unveiled the second “State of the Coast” annual report — an analytical and qualitative assessment of coastal conditions in Massachusetts, region by region. The report is underwritten by ReMain Nantucket and supporting partner Breckinridge Capital Advisors.

Trustees officials, local climate and environmental planners, and state climate leaders huddled under a tent adjacent to the sloping dunes of Long Point Wildlife Refuge, where wind, rain, and strong surf pelted the coastline. The setting provided a palpable connection to the wild beauty of the natural landscape, and the importance of protecting coastlines like Long Point for future generations.

According to the report, since 1887, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket combined have lost 3,295 acres of coastal areas, or about 5.1 square miles, due to erosion — roughly the size of Aquinnah, or about 2,500 football fields. 

Over the next 30 years, 3,000 more acres of beaches, dunes, and coastal banks could be erased, according to a review of historic maps included in the report.

Although all these natural systems are dynamic, and have been for thousands of years, anthropogenic impacts have accelerated the kind of change that cannot be undone. That’s why Jocelyn Forbush, acting president and CEO of the Trustees, said at Wednesday’s unveiling that this new report is a continued call to action for state agencies, environmental organizations, municipalities, and climate planners to double down on their collaborative efforts and be proactive before options run out. “This is a holy place as much as it is a beautiful place and a spectacular site for recreation,” Forbush said of the dramatic scene. “We are gathered here today at a really important and pivotal time for all of us. The Trustees and others not only need to learn and understand what is going on, but to act.”

Forbush noted that Long Point has an erosion rate of approximately 6.4 feet per year — one of the highest erosion rates on the Island.

Different environmental organizations and conservation groups have been compiling a variety of information regarding coastal erosion and flooding for a long time, but the “State of the Coast” is unique in that it brings all those pieces together into an easy-to-digest, synergetic report.

According to Forbush, the Trustees are stewards of 120 miles of coastline across Massachusetts, and the largest private landowner of coastline in the commonwealth. Being such a significant steward of rocky coasts, dunes, salt marshes, and beaches, Forbush said, one goal of the Trustees’ report is to encourage the level of collaboration needed to find funding resources to address these imminent needs, and make the difficult but necessary decisions that will prepare coastal communities for the future.

Tom O’Shea, managing director of resources and planning for the Trustees, said the report is an amalgamation of information from the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), the Woods Hole Group, and other entities. “The report is analyzing this data in new ways, and presenting it in a format that I think helps all of us get a bigger picture of what is happening on the coast,” O’Shea said. Based on the most up-to-date information, our coastal region doesn’t have much time to enact meaningful change, O’Shea said. To that end, raising awareness about the climate impacts we will see in the next few decades (and even the next few years) is a paramount ambition of the report. “This is a data-rich report, but it’s also one that is approachable. We hope this will help communities to not only engage in discussion and actions, but it’s also important for homeowners and business owners to read this and say, Where do I fit in this report, and what is my risk? What should I be thinking about, and doing?” O’Shea said. “This is not a report about gloom and doom, this is about what we can practically do to make a difference. What are choices we can make today while we still have options, instead of waiting for the next generation that may not have those options?”

On Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, the Trustees manage 17 miles of beach. At Norton Point, the beach has shifted around 1,500 feet over the past century — an example that O’Shea said illustrates just how constantly changing the coastal landscape is. Salt marshes will migrate, dunes will retreat, and sand will accrete at other locations, and development will be affected by these changes.

With this information, O’Shea said, we have the power and the opportunity to make the best decisions possible to ensure that we are prepared for what’s to come. “We have a lot of choices, and we need to think, Are we going to elevate our way out? Are we going to protect by creating barriers? Where are we going to restore dunes and nourish beaches? Where is the sand going to come from, and where is it going to?” O’Shea said. “In some cases we may need to talk about retreat, and I know that’s a difficult word to talk about.”

With such unprecedented challenges, O’Shea said, there need to be unprecedented solutions that establish Martha’s Vineyard and surrounding Island communities as leaders in the fight for climate change mitigation and adaptation, so others can follow in our footsteps.

According to the director for the CZM in Massachusetts, Lisa Engler, the commonwealth continues to witness firsthand the impacts of sea level rise and increased storm intensity in the damaging effects on coastline, buildings, and infrastructure.

CZM is working with stakeholders and communities like Martha’s Vineyard to improve the resilience of aging infrastructure and open space that is most susceptible to flooding and erosion.

Engler noted that since the Baker-Polito administration took office, they have invested more than $1 billion in mitigating and preparing for climate change. “That is significant,” Engler said. Going forward, the administration is planning to direct an additional $1 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act for critical energy and environmental initiatives. Included in that plan will be $300 million to support climate-resilient infrastructure, Engler said.

That funding will be distributed through programs like the EEA Municipal Vulnerability and Preparedness program, and CZM’s coastal resilience grant program. “This report is providing a pathway and a plan and a framework for us to better invest these funding resources,” Engler said.

For Liz Durkee, climate change planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the “State of the Coast” is a “goldmine” of information that will only become more comprehensive in future reports.

Durkee noted that the Northeastern U.S. is getting hotter, wetter, and is going to see higher rates of sea level rise than the global average.

“We are kind of a bull’s-eye here,” Durkee said. “If we collaborate, we think outside the box, and have the courage to have the uncomfortable conversations we need to have, and make the difficult decisions that need to be made, we can become a model for climate resilience.”

As extreme weather continues to affect the Island’s visitor-based economy, Durkee said, the Island community will be able to combat that financial impact with local, climate-based jobs. “We can turn climate impact into economic opportunities,” she said. “While the towns are facing the huge cost of climate adaptation, they will also be losing coastal property tax income. The towns can’t do this alone — Islandwide collaboration is critical. We need everyone working together for a common goal.”

13 COMMENTS

  1. Talk is great. Taking measurements and getting all the facts are important. But, this doesn’t fix anything. Like Oak Bluffs, the new beach groins show the beach is being saved. It’s now time to do something along the beaches of the south shore, or off shore, to cut down the wave action and build the beaches back up. Artificial reefs could be built, using old, cleaned buses and trucks. This would slow down wave action and become a fish habitat. Win Win. Talk is meaningless, if no action is taken.

    • Old, ‘cleaned’ buses and trucks would eventually oxidize and the rust (and the paint, if left
      on the bus or truck), would provide a sizeable amount of pollution over the years.
      A better way to slow wave action might be 2-4 ton rocks piled just off-shore, if that
      is feasible. It’s a more natural response than rusting and paint-covered vehicles.

  2. You know , we are not going to stop this by building sea walls and raising the roads.
    Sea level rise is one of many symptoms of a serious affliction upon our planet.
    We are already seeing cost to prepare for the known consequences of a warming planet and the horrific weather related disasters spiral out of control.
    We are literally facing the collapse of our civilization in the next century, and our well intentioned and somewhat informed leaders are talking about “climate adaption”.
    Nope– That’s like have lung cancer and coughing into a tissue so you don’t spray blood all over the house.

    • Don Keller I agree. Attacking the symptoms is not what we need now, but looking for the
      major leverage points, the balancing loops in a causal loop diagram that
      will get us bigger results.
      Humans are inventive and persistent, We have to find a way.

  3. How about building a network of energy-generating buoys offshore which would blunt the wave action plus simultaneously produce electricity.
    https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydropower/wave-power.php

    I don’t understand why no one in the USA has seriously pursued ocean wave energy, instead of these dreadful towers that are probably made in Vietnam by underpaid workers, use more energy to manufacture than they will generate, and will probably need to be replaced in 20 years, if not before.

    Whatever happened to the core concept of renewable energy, namely, distributed (local) generation? Why are we using a power-plant model suited to high-density energy sources to generate low-density renewable energy?

    There is a most illuminating article on the global business of gigantic wave towers here:
    https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n14/james-meek/who-holds-the-welding-rod

    At this time this detailed account appears not to be behind a paywall.

  4. The formidable and excellent Trustees of Reservation report covers Mass. North Shore. “Sea level rise and storm surge both are anticipated to significantly rise after the year 2050. … assumes GHG emissions will continue to rise in a similar fashion to today.”
    I read the entire report, link is here. What I would consider the most important message is that they “assume GHG emissions will continue to rise in a similar fashion to today.”
    This is critical to understanding our future.
    The MVC recently approved a 4,000 sq. ft. addition, 235 tons of plastic grass and a vast expansion of MV High School athletic infrastructure, Tisbury is spending $55 million on a new school, the SSA is spending $85 million on new infrastructure, all their vessels run on diesel, and diesel produces 22.4 pounds of CO2 per gallon.
    These are facts and I have no comment and am neutral on all of it because our community approves of it all.
    However, I will say this. I have been closely tracking CO2, wrote an 85 page paper of analysis, and clearly if we assume it will continue in similar fashion then they are calculating CO2 based on its rate of increase projecting forward. Simply put, since 1958 CO2 rate of increase has increased 1.5 times, then double, then 2.5 times and now triple. What this means given our priorities to provide whatever we need, as a planet, we can expect that by 2050 the rate of increase will not be triple as it is now, but 6 times the 1958 rate, more or less. Ocean level rise will be significant and so will be storm intensity and frequency, but by then burning, collapse of economies, and so on will be equally if not more damaging.
    So yes, sea level rise and storms are a concern. But in perspective to all threats including not mentioned is loss of oxygen, it is one part of a massive problem going forward.
    Is there anything we can do? That is up to each of us.

  5. been losing shoreline at the rate of 3 to 5 ft a year on the south shore for generations. oceans have risen 300 ft in the last 10,000 yrs since the end of the ice age which will come again. meanwhile the time will come before the next ice age when you can enjoy the beaches of prospect hill while watching the sun set over the aquinnah reef

  6. Katherine Scott and Frank Brunelle have raised some thought provoking ideas and issues backed by scientific research, so be sure to read their links!

    I don’t have a science background, but do realize that climate change has become a number one concern worldwide.

    Sadly, the “concern” is taken seriously by only a few. I guess it is human nature to only care about a problem when it is almost to late…sort of like how folks who shunned getting a vaccine are now standing in line to get one since the Delta virus has ravaged the USA.

    I’m 72, so I’ll experience climate change “as it rises“ to an unimaginable level, but those family members and loved ones who come after us will inherit the apathy shown by the general public, that is, until it’s almost to late!….. Is this the kind of future we wish for the generations to come? Thick long and hard folks!

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