, Newburyport, MA


August 19, 2013

From sea to rising sea

There was just the sea, not shining, just the calm, dark sea, with the horizon hidden behind a fog bank. I knew the Atlantic Ocean was out there, beyond the damp, cold fog that had clouded the shore all day. I even knew that off Water Street in Newburyport, there was a barrier beach between the bay and the true ocean waves, traveling all the way from other continents to the east.

But what of the homes to my right, to the west? What if there were no shallow bay, filled with the Merrimack River’s silt? Then these houses, unremarkable except for their location, would be where the Atlantic stopped, if you can conceive of ever stopping the ocean.

Then Water Street residents would be in the same boat as Plum Island homeowners are now, if I can use such a nautical image in talking about a land-oriented problem. Perhaps I can, because after all, Plum Island is a beach, which sounds like a place made of sand, which it is.

So what are people doing living on a beach? One of my earliest memories is being carried into the Atlantic on my mother’s shoulders, at the state beach where my grandfather had driven us, probably Hammonasset in Connecticut. No one lived there. We went to the ocean’s edge to swim from our home an hour’s drive inland, just as folks have been going to Salisbury and Plum Island beaches from Lawrence and Haverhill for time out of mind.

Property owners on our beaches, Salisbury and Plum Island, are certainly confronting shifting sands and winter storms that have eroded the dunes by monitoring the sand’s movements with regular aerial photographs. Any group that is concerned about climate change and sea level rise would be proud to have enlisted the armada of local, state and federal officials or their staffs who were sitting around the room-size square of PITA Hall tables on Plum Island during a recent Merrimack River Beach Alliance meeting: harbormasters, a police chief, selectmen, former selectman, a state representative and senator, Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, and representatives of another state senator and our U.S. representative, some 40 people in all, including the press and observers.

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