, Newburyport, MA

October 4, 2013

Our view: Watching the rising seas

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Many of us who live in greater Newburyport have chosen to live here because we love the ocean, the beaches and the uniqueness of life on the coast.

But the world is changing, and as sea levels rise, ocean temperatures increase, and hurricanes are predicted to become more intense, these places that we have grown to know so well will change — sometimes in the matter of a few hours, and perhaps forever.

It’s encouraging to see a growing interest among citizens in the science and observation of these changes, and how we can prepare and adapt. Here in Newburyport, a new group has organized to focus on it. Called Storm Surge, the group has members from throughout the region.

It’s begun holding regular meetings and lectures, and hopes within five years to be “a widely known resource center for information aiding area cities and towns to prepare for threatening and extreme coastal storm conditions.” It’s next lecture is Wednesday, Oct. 9, with writer Bill Sargent speaking on the topic of “Sea Level Rise: The Plum Island Story,” at the Newburyport Public Library.

The destruction wrought on a section of Plum Island this past winter was a vivid demonstration of how quickly changes can occur. In the scope of a few high tides, six homes were lost and a substantial amount of shoreline melted away. Less well publicized were the erosion problems suffered along the unpeopled barrier beaches of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and Crane Beach. These were significant changes to our coastline.

Other changes are more gradual yet still significant, such as the rise in sea levels that is slowly changing the Great Salt Marsh, and is predicted to destroy most of it within the next century.

The end of this month marks the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, the massive storm that devastated coastal New York and New Jersey. The storm demonstrated what may be the future for densely populated, low-lying coastlines.

Sandy left a mark here as well. One of the most disturbing effects was a phenomenon that has been observed at various times in Newburyport’s history. A massive storm surge from a hurricane can halt the natural seaward flow of the Merrimack River, causing a dramatic rise in the water levels along the Newburyport shoreline. West- or northwest-blowing winds then lash the waterfront with enormous waves. For a few hours during Sandy, those waves pounded the central waterfront and caused a momentary crisis as a whalewatching boat smashed against the boardwalk.

The best known example of this phenomenon occurred in 1837, when a series of hurricanes struck the coast in rapid succession. The result was serious flooding and damage to the Newburyport waterfront, the destruction of several ships, deaths and a major shift in the location of the Merrimack River mouth that literally blew apart a large section of Salisbury Beach and Plum Island.

Sandy was a close call for us. We were fortunate that it took a sudden turn and headed inland in the New Jersey area. Had it followed the track it had been on prior to that pivot, our area would have been hit with a powerful storm that no doubt would have caused enormous coastline damage.

The world is changing around us, there is no doubt. Fish species that once were unheard of in this area, because the water was too cold for them, are suddenly being caught along our shores. There are measurable increases in ocean levels, and there is evidence that tropical storms are on a pattern of growing in intensity.

When big storms hit, we search for answers and wonder how we could have lessened the damage. It’s useful to be thinking about these things and planning for them when the seas are calm and the skies are clear.