Posted by: coastlinesproject | June 23, 2013

Martha’s Vineyard erosion, massive house move.

On Martha’s Vineyard, no easy answers to erosion
Buy This Photo

Top Photo
Work crews lay out large sacks in front of the Schifter mansion in Chappaquiddick to stabilize the storm-battered area in front of the home. Erosion of the area averaged about a foot a day. The homeowners are in the process of moving the multi-million dollar house to a new location on the property.Cape Cod Times/Steve Heaslip
1 of 3 clicks used. Register for up to 10 free clicks per month.
June 21, 2013

EDGARTOWN — Steve McKenna wanted to bring together scientists, many conducting work independent of one another, to share their research into the erosion along the south-facing coast of Chappaquiddick.

Since 2007 — when a Patriots Day storm punched a hole in the barrier beach connecting Chappaquiddick to Edgartown — erosion rates have been devouring the shoreline, at times averaging a foot a day.

McKenna, the Cape and Islands representative of the state Office of Coastal Zone Management, hoped the Thursday conference would help town officials and scientists share information. But nothing — not research conducted by GPS and sonar-equipped personal watercraft, unmanned robot kayaks or even a red biplane — could match the personal drama of a multimillion dollar home suddenly jeopardized by an implacable force that ate up nearly 600 feet of beach, dune and coastal bluff in just a few years.

“Doing nothing was obviously not an option, and demolishing it is not an option,” coastal geologist W. Sterling Wall, consultant to the homeowners, told the audience.

Moving the $4.7 million, 8,313-square-foot house owned by Richard and Jennifer Schifter of Washington, D.C., is supposed to begin in earnest the first week in July. The home has been excavated down to 20 feet below grade. It will be lifted onto 20 self-propelled dollies equipped with hydraulic jacks and linked together to ensure that the house remains level as it creeps 275 feet over a three- to four-day period. Its new location is on property the family purchased last year for $4.5 million. A garage, guesthouse and the 2,200-square-foot house next door have already been moved by a crew from International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y.

Chris Seidel of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission mapped the erosion at the Schifter site using GPS over the past year and found that they lost 155 feet of their upland in 11 months. When they built their home in 2005, they had 280 feet to the edge of the bluff and almost 300 feet of beach, said Wall. That is nearly all gone, and the erosion continues.

The critical question for Wall’s clients is how much longer the erosion will continue. At other times in history when this has happened, a long spit of sand develops alongside the channel and parallel to shore. As the spit lengthens, the current loses velocity and the sand is able to accumulate and create a bridge to the land, closing off the channel.

But no one knows how long that will take, and no coastal geologist at the conference hazarded anything more than a guess.

“It could take years,” said Peter Traykovski of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And even then, it would likely be unstable and might break through again, especially if another big storm hit.

Even Wall didn’t know, or wouldn’t say.

“We don’t have a comment to the question right now,” he said when asked if there was a backup plan if 275 feet wasn’t enough of a buffer. “I’m uncomfortable to suggest a long-term plan because there are so many variables,” he said.

Those variables include a lack of understanding of exactly how the barrier beach will heal itself, as it has when it broke through several times previously. Following the break in 2007, the opening widened, then narrowed as the breach drifted east toward Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick.

Britt Raubenheimer and Steve Elgar of WHOI explained that their research showed a significant difference in the height of the water in Katama Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on the other side of the barrier beach. The water was essentially rushing downhill from Edgartown Harbor toward the barrier beach and the force, concentrated into a narrow opening by 2012, scoured out a deep channel where there was once a wide beach.

Peter Rosen, another geologist hired by the Schifters, was hopeful that the most recent aerial photographs showed multiple channels starting to form and sand drifting by what he believed was a weakening current and building up along the shore.

Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall was critical of the Schifters for building such a big home in what many locals knew was a spot prone to major erosion.

“I built my house to last 100 years, but when the Schifters built their house, they didn’t have a prayer of lasting 100 years,” Bagnall said. “There wasn’t a person in town that thought they had a chance to last.”

David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest on Chappaquiddick, took the long view. His research had shown that, for most of recorded history, Chappaquiddick had been an island and the breach was actually status quo.

Harbormaster Charlie Blair had seen it all before. When Blair was a child in the 1950s, there also was an opening in the barrier beach. The harbormaster at the time used freshly cut pine trees to mark the new channel, he said, pulling them up and moving them as the channel migrated to the east until it finally closed up.

But the 2007 opening had a much bigger impact.

What had once been a relatively calm harbor was suddenly behaving more like a swift running river as water flowed in from the north and out the hole to the south. It upended 4,000-pound moorings, wreaked havoc with the underpowered Chappaquiddick ferries, scoured out shellfish beds, uncovered long-buried WWII munitions, and even dug up a body that had been buried in the sand, depositing it next to Blair’s office.

“It was chaos. Like an explosion,” Blair said.

Read more in; Storm Surge; A Coastal Village Battles the Atlantic, Beach Wars; 10,000 Years on a Barrier Beach and The View From Strawberry Hill; Reflections on the Hottest Year on Record. See Strawberry Hill, UPNE, and Schiffer book tabs at the top of this page.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: