, Newburyport, MA

January 22, 2014

The problem: How to protect Plum Island right now

Mike Morris

---- — Despite the recent wobble in the frigid polar vortex, climate change and sea level rise are still in full swing. The Atlantic, infused with last summer’s latent heat energy, has recently generated several monster storms that, while sparing us, have lashed Europe with hurricane-force winds, 30-50 foot waves and coastal flooding. While our winter storms last year were devastating, they paled in comparison to the December storms that lit off across the pond. Inevitably, the big storm dice won’t roll in our favor. The question is, how prepared are we for a stormy future?

If we consider our handling of the Plum Island erosion issue as a measure of our ability to define the problem, employ effective solutions and objectively evaluate our efforts, we would have to conclude that we’re not prepared for the challenges posed by climate change and sea-level rise. Understandably, our efforts have been reactionary and emotional, focusing on short-term, crisis-oriented solutions driven by political pressure, rather than science. There needs to be a better way to manage this process than to constantly react to the crisis.

While states of emergency create sympathy for our situation, they also create an aura of fear, raise flood insurance rates and make banks leery of writing mortgages. The cumulative effect is dropping property values, which is good for no one. A discussion of the bigger picture, namely long-term climate trends and their impacts on our local area, needs to happen. The data describing our future exists, but we need to examine and acknowledge it.

In the long term (maybe shorter than we would like), sea level rise projections suggest that Plum Island will slowly, and quite painfully for all, roll itself over. In other words, waves and wind will push the sands to the mainland, leaving the house lots behind — as is happening with Dauphin Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Though this won’t likely happen tomorrow or even in the next several decades, slowly, over time, all house lots will eventually be lost.

While a substantial portion of the current erosion at the island is related to the river jetty system, we are concurrently dealing with a creeping mean high water mark that is now a foot higher than when the jetties were first constructed. With more heat energy available in the ocean and atmosphere to generate more frequent and powerful storms, the Atlantic will seek out and occupy its new level.

So the process of barrier island retreat has already begun, and is a reality that Newbury and Newburyport need to consider and plan for. The question is, in the interim, how do we delay storm-driven wash over and barrier island retreat so that we can extend our time there?

We need to build the tallest island vertically, with a robust barrier dune system. We need to at least maintain the jetty system, if not redesign it, and lock up all circulating sands. We need to create a dune buffer between the beach berm and structures to the rear.

To this end, properties that compromise the dune eventually need to be acquired, their homeowners made financially whole, and the lots turned into open space. All efforts related to river channel design, beach nourishment, barrier dune protection, planning, zoning and building codes need to support this effort. Those efforts that don’t are not worth pursuing.

This is an effort that needs to redefine the culture of Plum Island and it needs to begin soon. It’s time that Newbury and Newburyport work together on a long-term, sustainable, science-based plan to address the challenges facing the island. Storm Surge is committed to help our communities plan and adapt to the climate-related challenges that lie ahead. We strongly recommend the formation of a blue ribbon panel that would use the best available science to develop such a plan for Plum Island.


Mike Morris is chairman of Storm Surge, the Merrimack Valley Coastal Adaptation Work Group.