The beach and dunes continue to serve its central purpose as a barrier. Water pours along its shores in thundering waves or wavelets, shaping its contours. Its shoreline is constantly adding to, or diminishing, sections of the beach. It moves sand according to the tidal currents and prevailing winds, but in the long haul sand moves mostly southerly.
During major storms, surges strike inland with destructive force, reaching far up and, ultimately, back down the webs of rivers, displacing soil and sand that eventually finds its way to the sea.
Major flooding can come from upriver during thaws of winter shedding its snow and ice coats, often with such force that buoys lean down river despite incoming tides.
Storm flood surges of the Merrimack slow outflow from as far north as Plymouth, N.H., and the Connecticut does the same all the way to Vermont’s White River Junction, where the storms make islands of cities and towns.
Consider what we were watching on television in New York and New Jersey last week and ponder what would have happened on the North Shore if the center of Sandy’s impact had been Newport, R.I.
Boston’s low lands would have been devastated because much was once marshes.
So would shoreline properties up the coast probably to Portland, Maine. The two major rivers reaching seaward from the White Mountains, the Merrimack and the Piscatiqua at Portsmouth, would have wreaked havoc.
Plum Island and Salisbury beaches would have been awash. Newburyport’s Water and Merrimack streets would be as well, and the celebrated boardwalk would have either been submerged or, if its fastenings gave way, its timbers would be bashing Merrimac Street properties.
The short of it is that seashore communities are forever attractive and forever vulnerable, a reality that hasn’t discouraged their spread from Plymouth to wherever oceans wash America’s hems. We just don’t want to think too much about the downside.
Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.