Special Report: Norton Point Breach

Since the Patriots Day storm of 2007, the breakthrough at Norton Point beach has caused powerful currents to surge through Edgartown harbor, and substantial erosion along Chappy’s south shore. This feat of nature has happened before and will surely happen again – perhaps more dramatically.

Wind and rain began to lash Martha’s Vineyard from the south and southeast that Sunday. Gusts whistled up to sixty miles an hour across the Island through Tuesday, when the tempest began to whirl away into the far North Atlantic. It might have been just another springtime howler on the Vineyard. But the trick this storm pulled during the first few hours of Tuesday, April 17 – the best estimate of the time since, wisely, no one was standing on the beach that tumultuous night to see it actually happen – is why Vineyarders who heard the news later that morning will not soon forget the Patriots Day storm of 2007.

The gale had split Norton Point beach in two, separating Chappaquiddick from the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard. For many Vineyarders, it was as if a new era had begun, historically, geographically, even psychologically. For the first time since Hurricane Bob in 1991, we were no longer one island but two, with Chappy suddenly and completely severed from the rest of the Vineyard, by decree of tide and tempest.

Norton Point is the ribbon of beach that runs nearly two and a half miles between the south shore of the Vineyard near Katama and the south shore of Chappaquiddick at Wasque. Along with the rest of the Vineyard coastline, it began to form thousands of years ago as the glaciers melted and the ocean rose. In a process called longshore drift, breezes and currents, mostly from the west and southwest, sent sand from the up-Island bluffs and cliffs skittering toward the east, building beach along the way.

Fed by these sands, South Beach, at what is now Katama, began to edge its way from the Vineyard landmass toward the Chappaquiddick landmass, finally sealing off the willful Atlantic Ocean from the calmer and shallower waters of Katama Bay and Edgartown harbor. When connected to the land in both places, Chappaquiddick is technically a peninsula of the Vineyard. When storm tides drive an opening through Norton Point, Chappy truly becomes the island its residents consider it spiritually to be.

As a barrier beach, Norton Point protects Katama Bay and Edgartown harbor from the Atlantic. A barrier beach is often a fragile entity, balanced between the forces of wind, tide, and waves that forever force it to grow, shrink, and move. But periodically, once every generation or two, a gale like the Patriots Day storm lumbers in, hurling waves into and over Norton Point until – at a critical moment in the cycle of the tides – a section of the beach opens cataclysmically to the sea and stays open for a decade or more, subjecting Edgartown harbor to years of ripping currents, and the southern coastline of Chappaquiddick to devouring rates of erosion.

The initial assault

The first few signs that the 2007 storm was doing catastrophic damage to the beach at Norton Point began to show themselves at two o’clock Monday morning, April 16. Steve Ewing, owner of Aquamarine Dock Builders, was looking after his barge, which was tied to a wharf at the head of Edgartown harbor. High tide had occurred a few hours earlier at 11:20, but with the tides already higher than normal because of the alignment of the sun and new moon, and because of the surge that he expected to fill the harbor ahead of the storm, Steve knew the tide would peak higher than normal and stay unusually high into the early morning hours. The gale was gusting to fifty miles an hour or more, and he wanted to keep his workboats from being battered against the pier by wind and current.

“I was there right through the high tide,” says Steve, “and the tide had started to fall, and the wind had just started to back to the south or the southwest. I was just about ready to get off the barge. It might have been in between a squall. All of a sudden – I didn’t know it at the time – but a big tidal surge come into the harbor. It [had been] the falling tide, but all of a sudden the tide started coming back up again. And all this crap came in: beach grass, stuff from the south shore.”

Though he could not yet predict it – there were still too many variables in play for anyone to predict it – what Steve Ewing was seeing was the first evidence of how Norton Point was beginning to fail as a barrier beach. Technically it was still intact. But storm waves washing over it into Katama Bay were stripping Norton Point of vegetation, flattening and saturating the beach with seawater, and pulling tons of sand back into the sea. With Norton Point yielding to the overwash and the water rising with the surge, Edgartown harbor was quickly turning into Edgartown ocean, with waves to match. “You could feel it,” he says. “Standing on the barge, it started rising and falling on a swell – not just a chop.”

Two and a half hours later, at 4:30 Monday morning, Dr. Dennis Goldin was driving his Toyota 4Runner through the woods of Chappaquiddick. The storm was rumbling and sizzling around him; in the headlights, he saw that limbs and trees had fallen along the dirt road that led from the family home to the main road. In the passenger seat was his daughter Ali, a medical student at Boston University who had come home for the three-day holiday and needed a ride back to school, as he went to work off-Island.

Despite the storm, he planned to follow his customary route: Drive the length of Norton Point from Chappy to Katama, then head to Vineyard Haven, where he would walk aboard the first ferry of the morning, pick up a car on the mainland, and drive up to Quincy, where he’s an internist and rheumatologist. When Dennis reached the south shore of Chappaquiddick, with the wind and rain yowling from the south, he put the Toyota into four-wheel-drive, got up speed, turned right onto a deep, sandy track that wound behind a dune toward Norton Point, crested the hill – and drove down into a torrent.

“I must say – and I still remember this – my first thought was total confusion,” says Dennis. “Because I thought I had gone into Katama Bay. You have to remember it’s completely dark there. The wind is whipping, and I just paused, trying to figure out where I was, get my bearings. At that point, the water was pounding against the car, breaking over the roof.” Despite this, Dennis hoped he might still make it over Norton Point to Katama.

“And had my daughter not been there, honestly, I would have gone forward, thinking that I would get through this little spot of water and then I’d be okay. My car probably would have been lost – I would have been lost. But my daughter finally just said, using expletives, ‘Get out of here! We’re in the ocean!’ And I was able to back up. We made our way back through the trees and everything else.”

Dennis Goldin was not the last person to make the attempt. Three hours later, a wedge of dry air from the west had worked its way over southeastern New England and, like the eye of a hurricane, briefly cleared the skies and quieted the breeze over Norton Point. It was 7:30 Monday morning, and Nancy Hugger of Chappaquiddick, exhausted after an overnight shift as a maternity nurse at Falmouth Hospital, decided to use the lull in the storm to drive home across Norton Point. Her car, a Jeep Cherokee, was twenty years old with a four-cylinder engine and a stick shift.

Things were fine until she neared the Chappy end – the lowest and most battered part of the beach. There she encountered the first menacing tongues of overwash. Alarmed, she started phoning her husband, Skip Bettencourt, who was waiting for her at home. At each freshet, she called and he encouraged her to keep going. “The more things started washing over, the more I started to have to go through scary places,” Nancy recalls. The last channel she approached was the one Dennis had tried but failed to ford during the storm three hours earlier. “It was like a river washing through. But it was too late to go back the other way.”

Ahead of her was a neighbor in another Jeep, and she watched him ram his vehicle through the flood: “Ba-boom! – the water sprays everywhere,” Nancy remembers. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I didn’t go. I just sat there. I didn’t know what to do. Should I leave my car there or what? And then he comes back – Ba-boom! – and he says, ‘C’mon, just do it!’ And he goes back again – Ba-boom! – So I finally went, ‘Okay!’ And I went Ba-boom! – I made it through, and Skip comes down afterwards, and he looks at the channel, and he says, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’”

Shortly thereafter the storm strengthened again. The clouds darkened and lowered, the wind thundered anew, the surge and tides filled the harbor and bay afresh, and seething ranks of ocean waves reorganized their attack on Norton Point. The beach – though yielding to rivers of overwash all along its length – was still whole and unbroken, from the technical perspective of a coastal geologist. But as a roadway or even walkway between Chappy and the rest of the Vineyard, it was now functionally useless. Nancy Hugger would almost certainly be the last person to drive across Norton Point – not only the last that day or month or year but, if history is to be any guide, for as long as a decade to come.

The beach gives way

As it happened, the Patriots Day storm was just the latest and most forceful of four holiday tempests to have bullied the southern New England coastline since the start of 2007. Gales preceded it on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day, each of them dragging acres of sand away from the ocean side of Norton Point, narrowing it visibly, as wind and overwash leveled much of the beach into a vast, flat plain.

Even if there had been no storm over Patriots Day, the high tide at 12:09 on Tuesday morning was fated to be a memorable one. Not only would it be the highest of the month due to the gravitational forces produced by the alignment of sun and moon, but it would also be among the highest of the year, for on no other night in 2007 would a new moon be closer to the earth. With a great ocean storm advancing on the Vineyard at the very same time, the first few minutes of Tuesday morning became a perfect storm of circumstances that the saturated sands of Norton Point could no longer endure.

Off Norton Point, the Atlantic high tide peaks as much as two hours ahead of high tide in Edgartown harbor, and at 12:09 a.m. Tuesday the ocean tide had been falling since just before ten o’clock Monday night. Inside Norton Point, the super-high bay and harbor tide now began to fall too, looking for a place to go. To the north, it tried to make its way back out the entrance to Edgartown harbor, but the entrance was too narrow to release the tide waters fast enough to satisfy the extraordinary astronomical and storm forces at work that night. As the storm center crept by to the south, the winds began to veer north, giving the bottled-up tide the final nudge it needed to force a second way out of the harbor and bay – an explosive path through a particular weakened section of Norton Point and straight out to sea.

“It’s called hydraulic difference,” says Greg Berman, a specialist in barrier beach dynamics at the Woods Hole Sea Grant and Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. “If the elevation is high enough in the bay, you have a much stronger pressure [on the beach] than you usually would. It’s like popping a cork. Give it a little bit of a break, and it’s just going to start flushing out.”

The water’s path of least resistance turned out to be an especially narrow, especially ravaged sector of Norton Point lying one mile east of Katama and one mile west of the overwashing river that stopped Dennis Goldin and nearly stopped Nancy Hugger. In the first dark hours of Tuesday morning, a wave from the Atlantic washed over the beach, and as it seeped back into the falling ocean tide, the falling harbor and bay tide followed, possibly just a stream at first.

But another wave broke over the beach, and then another, and with the backwash of each, the stream widened and deepened, and the pathway itself began to liquefy. At some biblical moment, a final wave washed over, and the shouldering force of the falling bay tide dissolved the corridor through the beach to quicksand. In the sudden outgoing flood, the beach simply blew open to the sea.

“The weight of the water in the elevated bay is basically pushing sand grains apart,” says Rocky Geyer, a senior scientist in the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “You see it when you stand on the beach where the waves roll in and out. The sand is very soft where the wash ends and begins to retreat. And the more fluidized it gets, the more sand can be picked up and moved out.”

That’s the scientific explanation. What the first visitors to Norton Point saw shortly after a gray and windy dawn Tuesday morning was a deluge more than a hundred yards wide and widening, heaving southward through an opening in the beach. This wasn’t the first time the beach had surrendered to a remarkable confluence of astronomical and meteorological forces. Storms and out-rushing tides had punched through Norton Point at or near this same place in the beach in 1856, 1886, 1938, and 1953 or 1954. And likely many times before that.

Currents of change

Brad Fligor, an Edgartown native, has been a captain of the Chappaquiddick ferry since 1983. On his return from a vacation with his wife and two children not long after the opening, he went down to Memorial Wharf at the harbor entrance to see what the cut through the beach, nearly three miles to the south, was doing to the currents in Edgartown harbor. What he saw astonished him.

First, the tides had reversed direction. When the beach at Norton Point was intact, it was the sweep of the tides back and forth across Nantucket Sound to the north that commanded the rise and fall in Edgartown harbor. With Norton Point open to the ocean, and the breach now having widened to more than two hundred yards across, the Atlantic tide south of the new inlet, running up to two hours ahead of the Nantucket Sound tide, had largely taken charge. A falling tide now ran into the harbor entrance from the north and out to sea, a rising tide in from the sea to the south and out the harbor entrance.

In the battle for tidal supremacy, the harbor swirled and gurgled with powerful eddies, rips, and whorls. Channel markers leaned over in the current, waves peeling off to either side, as if the buoys were actually fighting their way upstream. The current was so strong that if the tide was running contrary to the wind – even in a storm – boats riding on their moorings turned the flats of their sterns into the breeze. It was as though some ether, more powerful than the wind, was forcing flags to snap into a gale, rather than with it.

Edgartown harbor had turned into a fiercely flowing river, and Brad Fligor, skippering the ferry, knew right away that his life on the water had changed radically. Where once the ferry had sailed on gentle tidal parabolas across the 527 feet between the Edgartown and Chappy slips, the boat’s journey now looked like an exaggerated question mark. On occasion, a strong south-running current carried the sixty-five-foot ferry more than 300 feet down harbor, to about where the charter catamaran Mad Max ties up, before the captain could manage to turn the scow into the millrace, battle its way back upstream, and crab into the opposite slip.

“The most incredible feeling,” says Brad, “was coming from Chappy to the Edgartown side, getting swept down towards the end of Memorial Wharf, and having to make my way back up so I could get into the Edgartown slip. And being full throttle and looking to the port side, parallel to Memorial Wharf, and really not going anywhere. I mean, I’m full steam, coming up so that I can make a turn into the slip, and just barely, barely inching forward.” Skippers of fishing boats and the Falmouth Ferry, tied to Memorial Wharf, reported to the Chappaquiddick ferry captains that instruments on their vessels were sometimes measuring the current at seven knots, or just over eight miles an hour.

The economic effect on the harbor was immediate and profound.

“The word gets out in the boating world very quickly,” says Charlie Blair, the town harbor master. The news was that, in the strongest currents, smaller sailboats were sailing sideways into the harbor or making it in and out only with the help of a tow from passing powerboats. Even for motorboats, picking up a mooring that might be submerged in the tidal stream was hard, and docking was often a fright. “When they finally got secured to their mooring or a dock, they heard this water rushing by their hull every night, and it’s like they’re underway at four knots,” says Charlie. “That was a big turnoff.”

With the shadows of recession approaching in 2007, the traffic into and out of Edgartown harbor fell drastically as cruising vessels gave it a miss and even longtime summer residents decided to keep their boats ashore. Five or six summers ago, the mooring field inside the harbor was filled with seasonal renters and visiting yachtsmen, and with the overflow, scores of boats would drop anchor in the outer harbor on any given weekend.

“Well, all that’s gone,” says Charlie. “In Edgartown, in our anchorage we’re missing over a hundred visiting boats a day during the summer. Last year, only the Fourth of July and Saturdays were we at capacity. I mean, now it’s ‘Please come to Edgartown, we’ll treat you right, we’ve got a super-friendly staff.’ We’ve always prided ourselves on being friendly and not overcharging.”

For Steve Ewing of Aquamarine Dock Builders, the new river-like currents challenged his crew as they built piers and serviced moorings in the harbor. “The divers are down there hanging like flags off the chains when the tide’s really cranking,” he says. “But it’s gotten less in the last six months or so. It’s definitely diminished” – for which he is plainly glad.

“Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that the harbor gets flushed every twenty years or so. Let it run in and out, get back to the glacial till, and I really like the harbor getting cleaned. But now that the tide is running half as hard, even though it’s running twice as hard as it used to, we’re so used to it,” he says. “It’s like a pleasure for us.”

For the Trustees of Reservations, a Massachusetts nonprofit land conservation group, the opening changed everything about the way it managed the beach for Dukes County, which owns Norton Point. Whereas an intact Norton Point had allowed the Trustees to oversee the whole of the beach with one set of managers, ever since the opening the beach requires two: one for each side.

And the management challenges have probably doubled, says Chris Kennedy, who supervises all the reservation lands for the Trustees on Martha’s Vineyard. Before the opening, the Trustees sold one permit for sport-utility vehicles to drive over Norton Point and much of the Chappaquiddick shoreline; now it sells two (and the Chappy permit costs more). As a result, these beachgoers tend to cluster on the Edgartown side, forsaking the extra time and expense to reach Chappy by ferry. “It’s not unusual to have three hundred vehicles [on the Edgartown side],” says Chris. “I don’t see that lessening at all. It’s a beautiful beach.”

In the first half of summer, it’s also a perfect beach for nesting birds. Four species like to scrape shallow nests into the sand near the opening, where the beach is new and barren of growth: least terns, American oystercatchers, piping plovers (federally listed as threatened on the East Coast), and roseate terns (federally listed as endangered). By law, managers rope off and monitor the nurseries, compelling Jeeps to squeeze door to door up to the rope lines until the last chicks fledge in late July or early August.

“When people say, ‘Jeez, you’ve got [the point] closed from May through July, any relief in sight?’ The answer is no,” says Chris. “As long as it’s prime plover and tern habitat, it’s going to continue to be utilized by those birds. And under the state and federal guidelines, we’ll continue to protect this habitat.”

An eroding coastline

It is the historic nature of a Norton Point inlet to migrate to the east on the longshore current and, some years after opening, seal itself at Wasque Point, the southeastern elbow of Chappaquiddick. As it moves toward Wasque (pronounced either “way-skwee” or “wahsk”), the opening traditionally twists and lengthens, eventually running east to west rather than north to south. Through this more attenuated channel and distant opening to the sea, the currents through the harbor ease, and with this easing, the more merciful Nantucket Sound tide begins to reclaim its dominion in Edgartown harbor.

In the summer of 2010, the story of the opening through Norton Point ceased to be a melodrama about the currents racing through Edgartown harbor – they had settled down over the previous winter as the opening moved eastward – and instead evolved into a devastating tale of land permanently lost to the Atlantic at Wasque.

Visitors who last saw the southern shoreline of Chappaquiddick before Labor Day in 2010 will find it this summer to be disorienting, perhaps even unrecognizable. A wooden walkway down to the beach is gone. Parking lots have disappeared. Roads and trails that once bordered the bluffs along the ocean now end jaggedly in space, sliced off as if by a great knife.

Wasque is one of the more exposed and starkly beautiful properties in the state-wide realm of the Trustees of Reservations. Measuring 200 acres when purchased in 1969 but reduced by erosion to perhaps 185 acres today, Wasque attracts swimmers, naturalists, hikers, and especially fishermen, who cast for bluefish and striped bass in the rips off Wasque Point.

“It’s been fascinating to watch,” says Chris Kennedy of the Trustees, “and almost frightening sometimes when you look at the amount of property we’re losing.”

The opening itself is to blame. Sand replenishes Norton Point from the western highlands of the Vineyard and offshore sandbars. But the current moving through the opening sweeps much of this restorative sand into the bay or out to sea before it reaches the Chappy side. Thus as the western point grows, the eastern point withers, as the inlet saws eastward. From where Katama Bay first broke through in April 2007, the opening has moved nearly a mile east.

The consequences for the Atlantic shoreline of Chappaquiddick have been devastating – and permanent. In the summer of 2008, the beach measured between 350 and 450 feet to the water. Since then, most of this beach has vanished entirely, and where earthen headlands once rolled gently down to the shoreline, they now drop off in cliffs measuring eight or ten feet high. When the fringes of Hurricane Earl whipped the coast from the south in the first few days of September 2010, storm waves detonated directly against the cliffs all along the Atlantic face of Chappaquiddick, carrying away sod, clay, and vegetation at every blow.

“Those cliffs were deposited by glaciers,” says Greg Berman of Sea Grant. “So they’re not coming back until we get another glacier there. Beaches and dunes can come and go, but when the cliffs go, they’re gone forever – well, depending on how you’re measuring the scale of time. For geologists, it’s only ten or twenty thousand years.”

Since last September, waves have been attacking the cliffs most days and nights. The Trustees’ superintendent at Wasque measures the loss of ground weekly, sometimes even daily. The rates of erosion have been unbelievable. Visitors after a nighttime southerly blow could stand near the lip of a newly severed cliff and estimate how many feet of earth had fallen away by looking out to the line of pitch pine and scrub oak trees that were rolling back and forth in the surf. Sometimes it was ten feet of ground lost overnight. Sometimes twenty.

By the middle of March, the parking lot where drivers one year earlier could deflate their tires before driving down to the beach had disappeared. So too nearly a hundred feet of road leading to it. To the east, a wide lowland of berries and tangled scrub lay dead, burned to a forest-fire gray by the salt
of invading seas. Trails that had curved along waterfront promontories in the autumn could now only be imagined as pathways vectored off into space over the Atlantic. Roads were smeared to borderless tracks by over-rushing seawater. And cliffs ground away by the waves below hung over the ocean,
fractured as if by earthquake, with roots dangling over the impatient surf.

Most remarkably, the Trustees’ swimming beach parking lot, which in the summer of 2008 lay 650 feet from the ocean waves, was half closed by March because surf was routinely washing over the seaward side of it. Yellow tape kept swimmers back from the place where the wooden walkway down to the beach had been, because there was scarcely a beach to swim from and no longer a walkway down to it. Even the memorial stone honoring the late property superintendent Foster B. Silva at the start of the walkway had disappeared. The Trustees moved it inland after one of Silva’s successors found it wrapped in seaweed from an overnight storm.
When the inlet closes

Chappaquiddickers tend to long for the seminary-like sense of isolation, collegiality, and quiet that true island status confers on Chappy when the ferry is the only public way on or off. But Jack McElhinney, a contractor and house painter, speaks for several Chappy residents today when he says that the ferry lines, which can run up to an hour in summer, plus the cost to go back and forth that way, cause him to miss his “driveway” across Norton Point.

“It’s a great way to start the day,” he says. “You get your coffee, you head out, and you’re on the beach. Snowy owls, nobody’s around, the sun, the waves. It’s so Zen, and by the time you hit the tar in Katama, you’re really grounded. It’s really perfect. So I miss it in that respect.

“But the breach has its advantages,” he adds. During the off-season, the ferry shuts down for breaks in the evening. “There’s nobody on the roads, and I know I can take the dog without the leash and go right down the road, because only Chappy people are there, and they know. They’re not going to go by you at fifty miles an hour.”

Peter Wells, a longtime Chappy resident and owner of the ferry since 2008, would like Norton Point to close. “I think it would be great if people didn’t think I was controlling their lives,” he says. “I like it if people who were out fishing late at night don’t have to be cranking down the road at ninety miles an hour to catch me before we make our last trip.

“I like the concept of having a monopoly here,” he concedes, “but it’s an expensive monopoly. It’s a lot harder to operate under these conditions. It’s a lot more expensive – fuel, time – so that the line gets longer quicker and you can’t handle it with one boat, whereas you used to be able to. It’s like a third slower [to run].”

Peter looks at the harbor entrance, across which his ferry, in the strongest currents, occasionally still follows a question mark course. “I look forward to having it calm down again,” he says.

If this opening behaves as openings have in the past, Norton Point will begin to edge south of Chappaquiddick as it approaches the island, forced offshore by the tides that run into and out of Katama Bay. The opening will slowly lengthen into a channel as the offshore beach inches toward Wasque Point, reaching it some ten to fifteen years after the Patriots Day storm opened the beach to the sea.

There the long spit of sand will confront the powerful currents racing north and south through Muskeget Channel along Chappy’s eastern shore – and Muskeget always wins. The currents through Muskeget will shove the spit against the base of bluffs at Wasque. The opening will close. The sands of Norton Point will become the new beach at Wasque. And the cycle that began in 2007 will come to a quiet end.

But visitors to Wasque will likely witness more dramatic loss of land before it does.

When there is no opening through Norton Point, the beach surrounding the elbow of Chappaquiddick shelters the high bluffs from the sea. During these periods, the erosion of the bluffs is nearly imperceptible. But as the channel and Norton Point approach, the current and the surf will sweep away the beach surrounding the bluffs. For months or even years, the Atlantic surf will attack the bluffs directly, especially during southeasterly storms. The longer it takes Norton Point and the opening to reach Muskeget Channel and close, the greater the loss of bluffs at Wasque.

The late J. Gordon “Pete” Ogden III, an expert in inland waters and a Vineyard native, wrote a landmark study, published in 1974, of the openings through Norton Point as well as the erosion they cause. He drew particular attention to the Wasque bluffs:

“Cliff retreat at Wasque Point...shows a total loss of more than 213 meters in the period 1948–1969,” he wrote of the last two openings to migrate and close at Wasque. Ogden added that this permanent loss of seven hundred feet of earthen bank, at a rate of ten meters per year, “must rank as one of the most vigorous rates of coastal erosion anywhere the sea is attacking a headland of more than ten [meters] elevation.”

Bob Enos, who repairs and stores boats on Chappaquiddick, recalls Wasque Point after the opening closed in 1969. The beach was a petrified forest of scrub oak trees that had fallen from the savaged bluffs. “The last of our home movies shows my uncles and my mom and my father, I think, fishing,” he says. “It’s a quick snapshot, and they’re threading their way through a bunch of trees and branches and roots sticking up out of the sand that had come off that bank.”

Dana Gaines, an illustrator and longtime resident of Chappy, remembers standing at the edge of the bluffs with his father after the opening had closed and seeing the last chunks of a newly mowed field hanging over the ragged face. “I guess the only question now is,” he says, “Is there a global warming wild card? You do wonder if anything to do with global warming will change the dynamic out there and make what happens even more dramatic than it’s been in the past.”

Forecasting the future

Chris Kennedy of the Trustees does not hold out much hope for the future of the Wasque reservation as we know it. And the future he’s thinking of is just an instant away if measured in epochal time. “If I were to predict,” says Chris, “I would say that I don’t know that Wasque’s going to be there seventy years from now, eighty years from now. We’re not talking generations upon generations left for Wasque. I think it’s a short-lived phenomenon at this point.”

In the last hundred years, scientists say, the Atlantic has risen about a foot in this part of the world, partly due to a warming planet and partly due to a sinking crust. In response, the southeastern shoreline of the Vineyard, from Katama to Wasque Point, has generally retreated six to fifteen feet a year. Many scientists think the sea may rise another foot to perhaps three feet in this century. If the rate of sea-level rise increases, the retreat of the barrier beach along the whole southern face of the Island will be that much more dynamic and swift.

Peter Traykovski, a scientist in the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, looks to the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a possible comparison on a larger scale.

“If the sea is rising slowly and there’s sufficient sediment transport, you can basically migrate the Outer Banks back toward the mainland, intact,” Peter says. “And there’s another idea that if sea-level rise is too rapid and there’s not enough sand moving, you could get multiple inlets and basically break the Outer Banks up into hundreds of little islands, and that at some stage they just can’t migrate fast enough to keep up with sea-level rise. And the system basically disintegrates.” It is conceivable that Norton Point could respond the same way, he says, breaking up under the pressure of a rapidly rising sea. This would be bad news for Katama Bay, Edgartown harbor, and a shoreline castled with waterfront homes, perpetually undefended from the whims of the Atlantic Ocean.

But Graham Giese, director of the Land-Sea Interaction Program at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, thinks a steady supply of sediment from the western highlands will help keep Norton Point intact if the rate of sea-level rise increases in the next hundred years. What will increase, he thinks, is the pace of change all along the barrier beach. “I mean, we’ll still have wave action, we’ll still have tides, and we’ll still have the same basic kinds of dynamics going on,” he says. “It’s just that the changes are going to go faster, because sea level is rising faster than it had, faster than what we’ve been used to.”

Graham expects more rapid retreat of Norton Point into Katama Bay. More frequent openings through the beach. Earlier exposure of bluffs and cliffs to unfettered assault from the Atlantic. Greater erosion along the southeastern shore and the bluffs of Chappaquiddick – but also an earlier defense from wave attack, perhaps, as openings through Norton Point migrate to Wasque Point and close faster than in cycles past.

Meanwhile, if history is a guide, Vineyarders and visitors can expect the present-day opening to reach Wasque Point and close sometime between 2015 and 2022. But that might not be the end of it. Not long after the opening of 1938 closed at Wasque in 1951 or 1952, a storm whistled up from the south and opened a brand new channel from the bay to the sea. And the cycle of erosion and migration and closing began all over again.

Sources for this story include Andrew Ashton, a scientist with the Geology and Geophysics Department of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Ted Keon, director of the Coastal Resources Department in Chatham; Rob Culbert, an ecological writer and consultant in Oak Bluffs; Robert Gilkes, a captain of the Chappaquiddick ferry; Anne and Warren Vose of Edgartown; and the libraries of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and Vineyard Gazette in Edgartown.