Posted by: coastlinesproject | April 1, 2016

Plum Island’s past winter erosion season.

Chapter 18


Light at the End of the Tunnel?

March 31, 2016



Well, so much for March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb, El Nino just put a kibosh on that old chestnut. March 2016 came in with sun and temperatures above 65 and departed with snow and temperatures in the 30’s.


Plum Islanders knew they just had to make it through another eight days of nine-foot high tides in April and the winter erosion season would be over. They thought they had dodged another bullet.


But our drone shots revealed another story. Last summer, there had been 8 empty lots in the Newbury section of the island where houses had been lost or moved. Grass had grown back into the lots and neighbors in the surrounding houses had come to love their new ocean views to say nothing of their higher land values. I figured that was that. Nobody would ever buy those lots again. Boy was I wrong.


One by one people bought the lots at rock bottom prices and the town gave them permission to build new houses balanced on spindly pilings. It worked, after a fashion, none of the houses had been seriously damaged during the winter but waves had started to undermine the houses’ seawalls and wash sand from beneath their superstructures.


But Newbury’s existing houses fared much worse. Five of the six homes that had been condemned in 2013 sustained serious damage in 2016. One foundation cracked and the seawall had collapsed in on itself so the homeowners had to pile more boulders and sand to their already expensive armoring.


But it was the rapid erosion on the north end of the island in Newburyport that took the residents of Northern Reservation Terrace totally by surprise. It had started in October when two distant hurricanes sent 20-foot waves pounding up against  the dunes. Then the edge of the dunes had retreated an average of 30 feet a month for the next 6 months.


The city and state were working on a short-term solution and the Corps was studying a long-term solution. But the residents also wanted to roll up their sleeves and see what they could do to protect their beach against the next year’s erosion.


But they were up against global forces. Ice had reached its lowest maximum ever on March 24th and that was the latest that this had ever happened. The director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Mark Serezze said it best, “The heat was relentless. I’ve never seen such a crazy warm winter.” The northernmost settled area in the world, Svalbard, recorded temperatures 22 degrees above normal and it rose above freezing twice in February, which had never been seen before.


To put it all in perspective, since satellites first started taking measurements in 1979, the Arctic had lost 620,000 square miles of winter ice, the equivalent of the state of Texas. Oil companies had jumped into the fray drilling during the ice- free months, while Russia was scrambling to send nuclear subs and warships through the Northwest Passage to China so cargo could follow. Even cruise ships were trying to get in on the ice-free bonanza. You could make a bundle on the end of the world.


So was that light at the end of the tunnel or just the headlights of an oncoming train? Only time would tell.




Read more in William Sargent’s new book, Plum Island; 4,000

Years on a Barrier Beach is available in local bookstores and through




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