, Newburyport, MA

March 15, 2013

The vagaries of life on barrier beaches

Bill Plante's North Shore
Newburyport Daily News

---- — I spent some time early in the week reconsidering my awareness of nature around and about Newburyport, Newbury and Salisbury into which I was born and have lived for nearly a century.

Much has changed, including our responses to all challenges.

The superhighway cuts a swath through and along the outbacks of our city and towns, increasing runoffs to farmlands and small streams. So has the expansion of housing and business through what was mostly unoccupied land until well after the Second World War.

As for our beaches, well ...

The stark reality of our intrusion on nature’s sensitive terrain is that it’s a consequence of mankind’s inability to avoid its lure.

We build homes and businesses upon it, or as close as possible to it as opportunities rise — just as others around the world do.

Barrier beaches, however, have lives of their own, and all are subject to the vagaries of nature and the whims of human kind. There is no question that we are, after all, temporary tenants despite our proofs of ownership.

The challenge for those choosing to live or otherwise investing on ocean fronts is to bring change to what is possible within the strictures of nature and regulatory authority without abuse.

That was on my mind as I made what I could of an ebbing tide with a fair northeasterly wind in my face.

On Tuesday, Plum Island had a modest group of breaking waves south of its jetty and a long spine of one a quarter mile or so breaking offshore and parallel to the shoreline reaching toward the center.

On Wednesday, wind direction had shifted westerly and there was no breaking surf except for that along the shoreline.

There is not much left to the beach’s shingle at high tide in Salisbury’s center where remnants of the old Ocean Echo attest to another age and a more inviting spread of sand. At high tide, waves were covering beach shingles right up to final barriers.

There is this about the ocean’s role in its transport and disposal of sand being problematic. Breaking waves can diminish beaches under one set of conditions and restore them under others. Differences in turbulence and wind direction make for outcomes.

There are, also, the results of mankind’s involvement.

Newbury — and later Salisbury and Newburyport — lived without the jetties from 1635 to their construction in the late 1880s. Prior to that nature had extended Plum Island’s northeastern end at a loss of Salisbury’s southeasterly one, and the building of the jetties stabilized what nature had done.

Had the natural growth northerly of Plum Island not been stopped by the jetty construction, it’s reasonable to expect that the river’s mouth would be much as it had been, but we can’t be certain of that. Barrier beaches can, and sometimes do, change their settings.

Their construction at the mouth of the Merrimack resulted in safe depths of the river’s channels, but they must be maintained regularly because the river is the island’s major source of sand.

As for attending beach erosion, there was a time when Plum Island structures were, in the main, built for summer use. Most cottages, compared with those of today, were modest, and there was little year-around occupancy right up to, and following, the Second World War.

There were, of course, losses, but there was much less official involvement in the aftermaths. Owners built at their own risk, as they do today, with losses much greater and layers of regulatory authority considerably more involved.

The realty is self-evident. Building on a barrier beach involves risk, and solutions do not come with guarantees. Indeed, a case can be made that corrective action taken to protect one area can result in problems elsewhere because of nature’s unpredictability.

Note its response to the building of the jetties, and consider what the outcomes of their removal might be.

A hundred years from now, perhaps someone will take note of what will have followed this accounting.

As to that, I would wager that when it comes to the unpredictability of nature’s whimsy, the more things change, the more they remain the same.


Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His email address is