NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

May 22, 2013

Keeping an eye on our shifting sands


Newburyport Daily News

---- — It’s often been said of New England weather that if you don’t like it, wait a minute.

The same concept holds true for the shifting sands of our local coastline.

We’ve watched the winter storms pound away at sections of Plum Island, scourging away dozens of feet of dune and causing the destruction of six homes. These dramatic images were broadcast widely, and caught the attention of people throughout the nation.

But as a story published earlier this week in The Daily News related, that half mile of battered coastline tells only a portion of the story. Farther down the island — about 6 miles or so south — an entirely different phenomenon is taking place. Off the southernmost tip of Plum Island the sandbars have grown to gargantuan size. They are perhaps a half mile in rough circumference, a collection of odd-shaped bars, shallow pools, and deep wells. The amount of sand required to create this natural phenomenon is staggering.

About three miles farther south, the scene is even more dramatic.

Essex Bay has become clogged with sand, greatly altering the landscape and seascape. The southernmost tip of Crane Beach, a remote spot that is accessible only by boat or by an arduous trek through the unpeopled sand dunes, is melting away, apparently becoming the source of the sandbar changes that are occurring just offshore. As with the sandbars off the southern end of Plum Island, the quantity of sand that is shifting around is staggering. And it only took a few months for this to happen.

Both Crane Beach and the southern half of Plum Island have reportedly seen significant erosion due to this winter’s storms. Collectively, this is a 9-mile stretch of beach that has not a single house on it.

As bad as the erosion on the northern end of Plum Island was this winter, what is happening at the southern end is far more dramatic. One of the key differences is that both Essex Bay and the southern end of the island are wild places. There are no man-made jetties nor rock groins, nor homes and shorefront roads, no millions of dollars being spent to curb nature. What we see is the true instinct of our sandy coast.

Dynamic is the best word to describe our local coastline. Plum Island’s peopled northern end is a compact and carefully measured grid of house lots and property boundaries, but the sea has never cared much for our attempt to impose order on it. The millions of dollars and enormous amounts of manpower that have been spent to protect this area have done a relatively good job providing stability to an unstable environment. All we have to do is look down the coast a few miles to see how much more chaotic it could be.