Nantucket Beach Erosion | A Disappearing Island
Across the island, Nantucket’s ‘Sconset Beach stretches out, a narrowing, often empty strip of sand that helps form the eastern bend that defines the shape of this island. It’s a summerlike fall day, and flat waves lap their way toward the bluff. At the base of one particular section, a small crew of workers builds a wall of sand-filled jute bags, each measuring half a football field long. It’s a mini–construction zone, with tractors moving earth and dumptrucks unloading sand from atop the cliff. But it’s just a stopgap measure, something that will only delay the ocean’s attack. Over the coming winter, this crew will be out here repeatedly to repair what the
water has done.
It’s pushing three o’clock and the men are getting ready to go. Two of them, Manuel and Juan, both from El Salvador, take a moment to assess the day’s work. “Seven years I’ve been doing this,” says Manuel. “We do the same spots over and over.” Just then an anxious Juan says something to his friend in Spanish. Manuel turns back and points to his wrist, pretending he has a watch. “We have to go,” he says. “The water is coming.”
And with that, the two scamper up the steep cliff, at times using their hands to claw upward, before a final ascent over the bluff’s bowed-out top section, where they disappear.
Here in Siasconset, or ‘Sconset as it’s known locally, homeowners aren’t fighting just the sea; they’re fighting their neighbors, too. At the center of this battle is a collection of some 50 lavish houses on Baxter Road, a quiet seaside street that dead-ends at Sankaty Head Light, to the north. Perched high on a sandy bluff with commanding ocean views, these homes, with names like “Luke’s Lair” and “East of Eden,” are the part-time addresses of people who’ve made their fortunes off-island. For the past 15 years, wind and waves have been shearing off the bluff and, for some folks out here, necessitating an expensive retreat from the water as homes are jacked up and moved to safer ground.
Millions have been spent on erosion research and mitigation work, too, with a good chunk of that money coming from the wallet of a tall, lean 71-year-old, a retired commodities trader named F. Helmut Weymar. Weymar, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, has entrenched himself in erosion battles over these past two decades with a doggedness that has earned him the local nickname “the Determined German.”
“It’s the single most time-consuming part of my life,” he says. I’m visiting Weymar on a stunning afternoon, when his place is abuzz with the sounds of saws and scrapers as carpenters repair a front porch. His home, which he and his wife Caroline bought in 1987, is a gem, a five-bedroom Colonial Revival with weathered gray cedar shingles, crisp white trim, and a widow’s walk adorning the roof. “Tallest house in the neighborhood,” Weymar says, lightheartedly.
But today, as on most days, his eyes are directed to what’s below. Out back, where perhaps 25 yards separates his house from the edge of the bluff, a narrow row of beach roses lines the back edge of the lawn — a final show of vegetation before the land drops sharply into a steep sandpit wall. In the distance a motorboat zips along the water; fishing boats dot the horizon.
“This bank right here was fully vegetated with about 200 feet of dunes before you got to the beach,” Weymar explains. “We had a walkway that went down there, and the yard went out another 10 feet.”
Like many homes along the bluff, Weymar’s was the creation of forward-thinking developers of the late 1800s who realized that ‘Sconset, a sleepy fishing community turning summer destination, needed more prominent residences than village shanties. Their homes featured expansive lawns separating each house from the bluff, with a public right of way. That’s why, even today, it’s perfectly normal to see strangers traipsing through the backyards out here as they follow mile-long Bluff Walk, which itself is eroding.
Weymar still enjoys walking the trail, in part because it’s like going back in time. To the south the beach is wider, the dunes still present, and the cliff’s gradual slope is covered with roses. Farther north, it’s a different story. With few dunes or shoals to stymie its energy, the ocean batters the bluff’s toe, strips away sand, and destabilizes the cliff. Big storms can bring disaster. In 2005, winter storms carved off 25 feet of bluff in less than a month and forced one homeowner to slice off the piece of his house that was hanging over the cliff. Over the past several years, a dozen homes on this road have been moved back or relocated.
Weymar’s house been lucky: It still sits on its original 1916 foundation. But nobody has to remind him of what he’s up against. Along with the scientists he’s hired, he’s made a careful study of the water and the land, familiarized himself with practically every erosion-fighting method available, and founded the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF), a nonprofit with more than 400 contributors, dedicated to addressing the community’s erosion issues.
Today ‘Sconset Beach is a reminder of lost battles. The mechanically doomed pumps and valve stems from a huge dewatering system that was supposed to lower the beach’s water table, and remnants of temporary terracing projects whose bags and posts storms have tossed about like little toys — they’re all in plain sight, $15 million in research and labor to fight the inevitable.
Even here on Nantucket that’s a lot of money. “It’s just stubbornness and arrogance on their part, because they have money, so they think they can outsmart Mother Nature,” says one ‘Sconset native. “That’s the risk you take. I wouldn’t have bought property on an eroding bluff, but that’s just common sense to me.”
Still, the money comes. Since 2005, SBPF’s newest target has been a $20 million beach-nourishment project that would dredge the equivalent of some 200,000 dumptruck loads of ocean sand and pump it onshore to build out ‘Sconset Beach — ultimately, its proponents contend, protecting the bluff and the houses. The idea behind it is this: By building back the land, in this case extending a roughly three-mile section of sand 150 feet out into the water, you hold back the ocean. Essentially, two beaches are created: a sacrificial one to feed the sea, and a permanent base behind it.
In effect, nourishment tries to tap into the complex system of give-and-take that defines any beach. Simply put, the ocean moves sand from one location to another — the direction varies according to the currents — through a process called littoral drift. Waves wash up onshore, deposit material, and then fill up again with material as they recede. But the harder the water rolls in, the more material it extracts and the less it leaves behind. And that’s what’s happening in ‘Sconset, where a high traffic transport of sand — the equivalent of about 20,000 dumptruck loads of the stuff — moves through the water each year.