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The dynamic boundary between land and sea

October 30 2012 | Coastal development, Coastal armoring,

As I watched hurricane Sandy make it's way up the East Coast and then hit land last evening, I found myself thinking again and again of a little fishing shack in Nantucket. Specifically, I kept circling back to the story an older woman once told me about that little structure.

The quick backstory is that a few years ago we rented what was essentially a one-room shack on Nantucket (an island 25 miles south of Cape Cod). We connected with an elderly woman who had built the house with her husband more than 60 years ago. During our stay, we brought her out to the shack and she couldn't believe her eyes. In front of the little house used to be a small meadow and a massive beach. The beach in front was large enough that people would come play baseball (complete with an outfield). Behind the house was a natural harbor, they built the house "on the water" so that they could literally fish off of the tiny back porch.

In the decades since, she had seen that the house and the entire island had shifted.

The picture to the left is another, larger, house nearby. The picture shows that the meadow is gone... as is the baseball field-sized beach. The house shown in the picture has also been gone for a year or two.

The woman was shocked to see that you could no longer fish off of the back porch... because there was about a 1/4 mile of sand in the way... the entire island penisula had migrated north while the structure stayed in the same place.

It's important for us to know that the region where the land meets the sea is dynamic, it changes over time.

Events like hurricane Sandy remind us of this point. The tragic loss of life and property over the past few days should prompt us to ask essential questions including "how do we live with a dynamically shifting coast?"

We believe the answer is preserving the natural buffer that beaches and dunes provide. To lessen those natural buffers (or take them away) is essentially the equivalent of putting amplifiers onto storm impact and damage.

We also believe that building close to the ocean, including the direction of the ocean and in the direct path of expected natural events like storms, huricanes and erosion... is a bad idea. Man-made structures, like seawalls, are not a match for the power of the ocean. With such structures in place, it's not a question of "if" they will fail it's instead a question of "when" they will fail.

As we shift from damage-control mode and into "where do we go from here?" mode let's make sure that we look back at history and learn from people that have seen our coasts shift, change and migrate over time.

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