, Newburyport, MA

August 19, 2013

From sea to rising sea

As I See It
John Harwood

---- — 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.

It’s time the rest of us adopted the same sense of urgency, the same willingness to document what is happening to our planet, the same lack of comfort with the near future, the same desire for action in the face of so much inaction, as has the beach alliance, which listened to Corps of Engineers staff patiently describing how little they can do within all their regulations, which are designed primarily to serve large-scale commercial boating.

According to slides shown recently by Jerry Klima, a former Salisbury selectman, the corps came to the Merrimack initially in the 1800s because of the hazards commercial ships faced trying to sail over the sandbar at high tide to reach the river. Today, business is certainly still involved; one look at all the boats moored and docked in the lower Merrimack tells us that; it’s just that the commerce is measured with many small boats, rather than with the large vessels of the 19th and 20th centuries.

A recent editorial in this newspaper noted the Coast Guard Station Merrimack is one of only two surf stations in New England, with a specially trained crew to handle surf that reaches a height of 8 feet or more 36 times per year. The other is Chatham on the Cape.

Not all rivers are this troublesome when they enter the ocean. I am familiar with the Connecticut where it enters Long Island Sound at Old Saybrook. A veteran small-boat captain notes that while the Connecticut River does have its currents and rips, it doesn’t carry the reputation for danger associated with Plum Gut, between another Plum Island and the northeastern tip of Long Island.

As for our Plum Island attracting a lot of interest, author Bill Sargent of Ipswich says academics and consultants see it as a test case for how this area’s people will deal with sea level rise and climate change, so we can expect to hear more from them about the science and experience that will help shape our decisions in the months and years to come.

The headline is from the spring 2013 Clark University alumni magazine, which featured the school’s climate change research.


John Harwood of Newbury is a retired community journalist and a patriot.