On Oct. 9, I drove to Newburyport to photograph Plum Island before the first northeaster of the erosion season.

Dubbed Melissa, the subtropical storm had stalled and was wobbling south of Martha’s Vineyard and would stick around for the next four days. This meant we would be battered by high waves through 10 high consecutive high tides.

The cone graph of Melissa’s predicted path looked undeniably phallic and social media was atwitter with speculation that someone in NOAA was making a point about their commander in chief’s penchant for redrawing the paths of hurricanes so they fit with where he wanted them to go rather than where they actually were.

But I was particularly concerned about the center of the island. Rumor had it that a well-intentioned resident had become overly ambitious and placed dozens of multiton boulders on Center Groin. If coastal residents have learned anything by now, it’s that if you alter one area of a beach, it will cause changes to other parts of the beach.

Ten-foot high waves were already breaking over the offshore sandbars and mercilessly crashing into the beach. The wind was so strong, it blew gusty blasts of stinging, sharp sand crystals into my face and was in danger of abrading my camera lens. The air was so thick with salty mist and blowing foam, I had to use my windshield wipers to see.

I looked to the south and saw that the beach was 3 or 4 feet higher and almost 80 feet wider than the year before. I had expected this, but had not expected how far the widening would extend up the beach. The last two groins were almost entirely buried in sand and the beach was about 60 feet wider all the way to the Parker River Wildlife Refuge almost a quarter to the south.

The real problem lay to the north. Center Groin was blocking the natural flow of sand to the north so that waves had scoured out a 1,000-foot crescent of sand. They were already taking chunks out of the dunes just below a dozen homes. The storm would eventually remove 10 feet off the face of the dune, leaving at least three houses only 48 feet away from toppling into the sea.

But the larger concern was the Basin that lay below the dunes and houses. The Basin had been the mouth of the Merrimack River prior to the 1830s. If the ocean broke through the dunes, the Merrimack River could re-establish the mouth of the river at its former location, cutting off water, sewer, electricity and access to several hundred Plum Island homes.

Conditions would have to be just right. The level of the water in the Basin would have to be high enough to flow into the ocean at low tide in order to keep the new river mouth open.

New inlets can form incredibly quickly. On Cape Cod, I had watched as an inch-deep washover area was scoured into a 20-foot-deep inlet in just a few short weeks. It could happen even more quickly with the river providing its extra push toward the ocean.

It would not happen during this first storm of the season, but Melissa had softened up the area for a knockout blow that could land by the end of this season.

On Oct. 11, I drove back at high tide to see how the storm was affecting North Point. Fifteen-foot waves were tearing large chunks out of the sacrificial dune that had been completed just a few weeks before.

But waves had already cut about halfway through the dune. But it had done its sacrificial job. It had absorbed the energy of the waves so they had not damaged the natural dune or reached any of the houses. But it would have to be repaired before the next storm.

Melissa brought home the point that we are in a new reality. We can expect more frequent and more powerful storms that tend to linger longer off the coast due to higher ocean water temperatures.

In a sense, we had dodged a bullet Melissa had struck when the moon was at the extreme end of its elliptical orbit. If the storm had struck two weeks before or after, the tides would have been 2 feet higher and the erosion would have been catastrophic rather than severe.

If people want to continue to live on barrier beach islands, they will have to fight such erosion on several fronts.

On Plum Island, this means they will both have to rebuild the sacrificial dune on Northern Reservation Terrace as well as do something about the central groin.

The former way of accomplishing such projects would require a long, complicated permitting process and lengthy negotiations with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers.

But the whole process would be a lot easier and faster if all the North Shore towns worked together and hired a professional to apply for all their permits and forged ties with local contractors or had their own dredge like the towns do on Cape Cod.

It would be expensive, but a small price to pay if people want to continue living on the coast and towns want to continue to receive revenues from such vulnerable but highly taxed areas.

 

Bill Sargent is a North Shore science writer and contributing columnist. His most recent book, "20,000 Years on the Merrimack River," is available in local bookstores and through http://plumislandoutdoors.org and www.ingramcontent.com.

 

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