If you want to know what climate change and sea level rise looks like, just check out photos and videos from the winter storm that hit our area Jan. 4. Local officials would do well to pay attention to that preview.
We've become inured to storms inundating certain areas along the coast; Chatham's Ryder's Cove floods regularly, as do a number of roadways hard by the water, including the intersection of Route 28 and Bay Road in East Harwich. This storm saw waters rise much more – and much faster – than anytime in the past quarter century, flooding areas that hadn't seen water in years. It was especially acute in Chatham's Little Beach, where up to four feet of water rushed in from Outermost Harbor and trapped a number of residents in their homes, and made a key intersection impassable, stranding even more people on Morris and Stage Islands who could not get past the mini-sea created by the flooding.
There are two factors at play here. One is sea level rise. A recent study by the Pleasant Bay Alliance highlighted the threat accelerated increases in sea level poses to the bay shoreline and resources. The immediate concern, however, is the erosion of the barrier beach, including both North Beach and South Beach. Flooding at Little Beach was largely attributed to a storm surge gushing through the April Fool's inlet and overtopping South Beach, which is now barely more than a series of shoals. We're only part way through winter, so there's a strong likelihood that more storms will batter the area and further lower the beach, adding to the exposure of the inner shoreline south of Lighthouse Beach, an area that's especially vulnerable due to its low elevation.
Many years ago, not long after the 1987 break in North Beach, a study mandated by state environmental agencies looked at a comprehensive erosion control solution for the area south of the Lighthouse. The goal was to have a plan in place when and if erosion became a serious issue. After South Beach attached to the mainland and long stretches of beaches grew along the protected shoreline, the plan was largely forgotten. We're now back to where things were before South Beach attached, and Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon said he's planning to brush off that report as a jumping off point to look at future shoreline protection for Little Beach – and more, since the loss of South Beach will no doubt impact the Morris Island Road causeway as well as Morris Island itself. That's a good start. The town needs to devote resources to this effort, and reach out to the effected property owners. It should be put on a fast track; sea level rise wasn't a major factor when the study was first done, but, as the Pleasant Bay study highlights, it certainly is now.
Chatham, Harwich and Orleans also need to work with the Commonwealth to brainstorm ways to protect Route 28 where we saw flooding Jan. 4 and where there will no doubt be flooding again – along Frost Fish Creek, Ryder's Cove, at Bay Road, and just north of Tar Kiln Road in Orleans. This could mean raising the height of the road or putting shoreline protection structures in place, both of which will take years to implement. Now is the time to start, before it becomes a crisis.