March 25, 2016
On March 25th the Army Corps of Engineers ostensibly announced that Plum Island was entering a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift comes about when people start realizing that reality no longer fits the prevailing scientific explanations of reality. It happened most famously when Galileo noticed that the earth was continuously moving through space and around the sun, contradicting the prevailing belief in the earth’s static centrality.
Things were not quite so dramatic on Plum Island, but for the last twenty years reality had not reflected the prevailing belief that currents move north to south along the island and that they were responsible for somehow building a sandbar that caused a hot spot of erosion to move down the beach.
I suspect that the Army Corps of Engineers had never really felt very comfortable with this old paradigm. But the Newbury homeowners who were pushing for the Corps to repair the jetty were being represented by a sharp Washington based lobbyist who knew how to game the Corp’s labyrinthine tangle of red tape. Plus he could point to a closely-knit coterie of Boston University scientists who insisted the currents flowed south along the island. Their pronouncements were accepted more on the basis of their perceived reputations than on any actual data.
But the reality of the situation had become all too apparent; houses had been lost, beaches ruined, and millions of dollars worth of money had been spent on groins, seawalls and jetties, And they had only made matters worse so that over 250 homes were now in danger on Northern Reservation Terrace.
It is only when it becomes so obvious that prevailing theories are not reflecting reality that the system becomes primed to shift. Usually by this time the existing theories have become incredibly complicated in their attempts to explain reality according to the old paradigm. Then it is time for someone to some up with an elegant new idea that explains everything so simply that other scientists wonder why they hadn’t come up with the idea themselves. It is often referred to as cutting the Gordian knot.
Plum Island’s shift started when Mark Habel told the members of the Merrimack Beach User’s Alliance that the Corps was going to expand its study of the cause of erosion on North Point so that their models would reflect what residents were actually seeing in front of their homes. And in answering a question from another homeowner he said that currents were bidirectional on Plum Island. This had never been uttered in public before.
It was a signal that the Corps realized that they had been forced to accept local knowledge that they had never really had confidence in and that now the chickens were coming home to roost. Erosion was just as bad as always in the Newbury section of Plum Island and immeasurably worse in Newburyport.
To their great credit the Corps was now prepared to reopen the case and do the sediment transport analysis that would have normally been done before the jetty was repaired. It hadn’t been done because almost all of the Corps’ research funds had gone into studying the situation in New Orleans after Katrina.
So now the study would be done and it meant that Newburyport and the state might be eligible for up to $10 Million dollars. It was a paradigm shift with immediate economic consequences that was going to be fascinating to watch unfold.