Storms Widen North Beach Island Washover

By: Tim Wood

Recent storms have widened the washover on North Beach Island, raising concerns about the potential for erosion of the Chatham Harbor shoreline. SEAN ANDREWS PHOTO

Morris Island Bluff Also Takes A Beating

CHATHAM – The Feb. 2 Groundhog Day storm significantly widened a major washover on North Beach Island and continued to eat away at the bluff at the Morris Island headquarters of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

Pavement around the National Weather Service building on Morris Island was removed just prior to the storm to prevent it from tumbling down the bluff. The building, where weather balloons are prepared and launched daily, is likely to be closed down once erosion gets to the point where the structure is unsafe.

A late December coastal storm washed out dunes at a narrow point in North Beach Island. Last week's storm widened the gap and took out more dunes, although Keon said the opening remains a washover and not a channel or inlet, since water is only flowing through on an incoming tide.

“Whether that will stay that way I can't tell,” he said. Although, given the lowering of the beach and its general deterioration, it is unlikely to close up, either, he said. A permanent break would have implications for navigation in the harbor as well as property along the inner shoreline.

Chatham Bars Inn's beach is directly across the harbor from the washover, and officials there have already seen several feet of erosion of the dune along the southern end of its quarter-mile shoreline, near Claflin Landing. General Manager Gary Thulander said he's been talking with Keon and Coastal Engineering and was set to meet Tuesday with scientists from the Center for Coastal Studies who have been studying the barrier beach system.

“We're gathering information,” Thulander said. “We're trying to understand from the professionals what their perspective is on it.” The inn has no immediate shoreline protection plan but is trying to be proactive by consulting with the experts to determine how to react to the situation, he said.

“We're not too concerned, but we're definitely monitoring it,” Thulander said.

Keon said he has yet to hear concerns from other shoreline property owners, although those near Linnell Lane are aware of the situation and the uncertainty posed by the washover. More coastal storms will not bode well for the area.

“There's no really positive spin on this for the inner harbor,” he said.

The bluff at the Monomoy Refuge headquarters lost about six feet in the Feb. 2 storm and more during this past week's weather, said Acting Refuge Manager Eileen McGourty. Since 2015, the bluff has lost as much as 60 feet in some places. Although the path to reach them has been rerouted, the stairs leading to a viewing platform at the beach remain in place, though McGourty said they're “really close” to the edge and she doesn't know how long they will be accessible. Stairs leading from the platform to the beach were removed in November.

“We're waiting to see if it makes it to the season or not,” she said. If the erosion continues, the walkway that previously led along the top of the bluff will have to be relocated. Alternatives are being considered so the public can still have access to the panoramic view at the top of the bluff, including having the path go alongside the dorm/garage building.

“We're going to try to maintain access for as long as possible to that area,” as long as it is safe, McGourty said. “But if erosion gets too bad we're going to have to close that section off.” The Quitnessett Association, which owns the beach to the north of the refuge property, has cut off access due to the erosion, so this may be the first summer with no beach access directly from the refuge headquarters. A refuge-owned right-of-way to the beach just past the refuge headquarters, about a quarter mile down Wapoos Trail, remains open. Thousands of people visit the headquarters every summer, many to fish and bird watch, others to sunbathe and walk the beach.

The pavement at the National Weather Service building was removed on Jan. 20. The storms that came through after that put the bluff right at the edge of where the pavement was. “It's a good thing we got it out when we did, so nothing fell down the bank,” McGourty said.

Observers previously launched weather balloons from the pavement, but they've now been directed to use the lawn on the other side of the building, said Andy Nash, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Norton.

“At this point, the operation has not been impacted, but we're of course watching that,” he said. Weather Service officials at the regional and national level are aware of the situation and are discussing relocating the operation, but if the bluff continues to erode and the building becomes unsafe, operations might have to be suspended.

“We're just keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn't get any faster,” he said of the erosion.