Stormy week gnaws at Outer Cape beaches

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 27, 2009
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Battering the Outer Cape’s fragile beaches with sustained gusts and powerful waves, this week’s swirling, unseasonable northeaster radically reshaped the coastal landscape, leveling dunes, washing away plover and tern nests, and engulfing coveted coastal swaths.

As they grimly surveyed the aftermath yesterday, coastal specialists said they were stunned by the scope and severity of the damage, which forced the closure of some ocean beaches and in some cases wiped away years of painstaking restoration efforts.

“In terms of changes on the beach, this is the biggest storm I’ve ever seen,’’ said Carrie Phillips, chief of natural resource management at Cape Cod National Seashore, which stretches from Chatham to Provincetown. “It totally reshaped all of our beaches.’’

Some sections of the seashore were closed because high tides left little to no dry sand, while several popular beaches, including Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, were noticeably smaller.

In Truro Thursday morning, when the sun finally broke through several days of gloom, Cape-goers celebrated with a visit to Ballston Beach, a generous, gently sloped stretch of sand nestled along Truro’s rolling dunes.

But the ocean had other ideas.

“The beach was just gone,’’ said Hannah Gonsalves, the town’s assistant beach supervisor. “Wiped out. People were asking where it went. I told them, ‘I guess someone stole it.’ Hope they bring it back.’’

In Wellfleet and Eastham, parts of the coast were closed this week because of the high tides. In Chatham, two summer cottages on the southern tip of Nauset Beach were knocked off their foundations by an onrushing ocean that stole 40 feet of beachfront in a matter of days.

The storm also eroded beaches’ summer slopes, flattening sandy stretches up and down Cape Cod to levels more familiar in winter.

“In some places, the toe of the dune is just a vertical scarp,’’ or steep slope, Phillips said. “The tide goes right up against it.’’

The surf also swept away some 15 plover nests and nearly all tern nests, which will delay the birthing season and give chicks less time to grow before their grueling migration south, Phillips said. In Dennis, on Cape Cod Bay, the storm badly damaged Chapin Beach, washing away protective barriers and part of the entrance ramp.

“What a storm, what a storm,’’ said Alan Marcy, the Dennis shellfish constable, with equal parts admiration and frustration. “Dunes got cut back anywhere from 15 to 30 feet. She certainly did her job.’’

The beach, a popular spot for four-wheel-drive vehicles, was closed to cars and dogs because of erosion concerns and to protect a nest of plovers that hatched during the storm. “They’ll need about a month’’ until they can fly, Marcy said. “Right now they are nothing but cottonballs on stilts.’’

At the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, the storm knocked down electric fencing installed to protect birds against predators and destroyed a number of nests.

“We’ve had very high tides, very strong winds,’’ said Monica Williams, wildlife biologist at the refuge. “Hopefully the birds will re-nest before it’s too late.’’

In Orleans, the storm reversed a months-long, natural influx of sand in a matter of days. “We got beat up pretty good,’’ said Paul Fulcher, the mid-Cape town’s parks and beaches superintendent. “The good thing is that this time of year, the summer shelf bounces back pretty quick’’ because of the prevailing winds.

At the same time, the season makes the beaches particularly susceptible to erosion, specialists said. Fairer weather tends to move sediment landward, giving beaches a more pronounced slope in the summer. For powerful gusts and surf, those slopes are inviting targets.

“The protective topography that is there in the winter was not in place,’’ said Graham Giese, of the Land & Sea Interaction Program at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. “The storm rolled back the clock.’’

S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal marine geologist with the US Geological Survey in Woods Hole, said coastal erosion will only accelerate as sea levels rise. “We can expect to see much more of this in the future,’’ he said.

That’s not good news for those who spend years watching and worrying over beaches, trying their best to protect them from harm, only to see all their hard work gone with the wind.

“Mother nature can take it all away, in an instant,’’ said Marcy, of Dennis.

And as thousands of people prepare to descend on beaches in the coming weeks, specialists wonder whether the besieged stretches can rebound in time.

“It’s so late in the season, it’s really hard to tell,’’ Phillips said. “But we’ll be watching.’’