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.”