The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands
Nauset Beach & Town Cove, Orleans and Eastham
Editor’s note: this is the third in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline.
Cape Cod’s Atlantic-facing communities have been ravaged and changed over the years through the process of erosion. From Chatham to the tip of Provincetown, the tangible effects caused by major storms as well as erosion wrought by daily, lapping ocean waves are easy to see. The barrier beaches off the coast of the Lower and Outer Cape are growing thinner by the year, and several dramatic breaks in these beaches have occurred in the past few decades.
One location where erosion’s effects have been particularly prevalent is that of Nauset Beach in Orleans—specifically, the beach’s northernmost tip, the Nauset Spit.
As a result of storms, waves, and longshore currents, which continually move sand along the coastline, the spit developed and has gradually expanded northward since the early 1950s. In Arthur Strahler’s 1966 book, A Geologist’s View of Cape Cod, a map of the area shows the inlet to Nauset Harbor located just off of Nauset Heights—with no spit in existence. However, a spit did extend about three miles southward from nearby Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. In the next half century, the spit connecting to Eastham continually receded to the north while the Nauset Spit seemingly chased it, stretching northward for a little over two miles and pushing the inlet the same distance north. Today, the Nauset Spit’s northernmost tip—about one mile of beach—falls within the border of Eastham.
What’s all the fuss about? One issue that has generated some consternation between residents of Orleans and Eastham in the past few years is that the towns maintain different rules for over-sand vehicles and beach access.
For years, beachgoers have driven onto the spit from Orleans and continued with their vehicles to the northern tip for attractive views of Nauset Marsh. Prior to the Blizzard of 1978, beachgoers coming from Eastham could also drive onto the spit extending south from Coast Guard Beach—but the storm damaged the land heavily and caused the spit to recede even further. Following the blizzard, Eastham enacted a bylaw prohibiting vehicle traffic on any town beach to the south of Coast Guard Beach.
Presumably, this bylaw generated little discussion for a long time. After receiving complaints in recent years about beachgoers with cars on the Nauset Spit, and within Eastham’s town border, Eastham officials looked at the bylaw again in 2014. Just before Labor Day, the town issued a “cease and desist” order to prevent any driver from crossing a literal line in the sand, from the Orleans section of the spit to Eastham. In May of this year, Eastham’s Town Meeting voted to maintain the bylaw, and a sign posted at the border alerted drivers that any vehicles proceeding further would be subject to a $200 fine.
Of course, this intra-town issue has only cropped up in the past few years and has developed simply as a result of the spit’s geological expansion. Mark Adams, geographic information specialist for the Cape Cod National Seashore, explains that due to erosion, dilemmas such as this do arise and sometimes dissipate.
In addition to changing the shape and size of the Nauset Beach and Spit, Adams says the region’s shifting sands are also contributing to changes taking place away from the beach, including in the waterways of Town Cove, which is located between Orleans and Eastham.
For centuries, Town Cove was one of the region’s most important harbors. Despite a hazardous sandbar in Nauset Marsh, vessels sailed into the cove and settlers established farms in the area. The area was home to Eastham’s first meetinghouse in the mid-1600s, and in 1717, Cape Cod’s first canal was dug from a natural channel that ran between Boat Meadow (on the Bay side) and Town Cove. Today, the area surrounding Town Cove is dotted with shops, homes, and restaurants.
“Sand overwashes Nauset Spit,” Adams says, “and moves with the tides through the Nauset Inlet, contributing to shoals within channels that connect to Town Cove. The sand that erodes from ocean beaches becomes a valuable contribution to marshes and bays (such as those in Nauset Marsh) and to other ocean beaches to the north, such as Race Point in Provincetown.”
“Erosion is rather consistent,” Adams adds, “and unstoppable in the long term, but individual storm and wind events can cause dramatic changes that may partially ‘heal’ the beaches, given some longer periods of quiet weather. Cape Cod also experiences a seasonal cycle of wave-scoured winter beaches returning to fully rounded summer beaches, mirroring the weather pattern that cycles from the storm season, to the quiet of summer.”
Mike O’Connor also has expertise in the field of erosion and local waterways. Working as Eastham’s harbormaster and, before that, assistant harbormaster, for a total of 16 years, O’Connor has witnessed how shifting sands have affected travel for boaters. “It’s an annual problem where navigation routes change with the winter storms,” O’Connor says. “The last few years have seen severe shoaling out at Nauset Spit as water depths are very shallow.”
As a result, boaters are advised to enter or depart Town Cove through the Inlet for three hours on either side of high tide. The ride from the Orleans boat ramp off Cove Road to the Inlet is about three miles, and the strong current and shifting sands make it potentially treacherous even with a clearly marked channel.
Despite these dramatic changes, Adams notes that some steps can be taken to manage coastal erosion. “The more we know—through scientific measurement of sand movement,” Adams says, “the better we can adjust by adapting access and facilities so people can continue to enjoy beaches and near-shore waters.”
As erosion has transformed the Nauset Spit and Town Cove over the years, Adams says local officials have enacted several measures to deal with the changing coastline, including constantly remapping the area and setting buoys to mark navigable channels. “Driving is rather restricted on Nauset Spit,” Adams adds, “but when it is permitted, the corridor must be within a certain distance of the high tide line and must also avoid any steep breaks in beach topography for safety’s sake. Shorebirds are vulnerable to tidal flooding and to uncontrolled drivers, so management is crucial. Occasionally, dunes damaged by human use must be restored and replanted with native beach grass.”
These measures, Adams says, have been taken in the spirit of coping with, not fighting against, erosion. That, he says, would be a losing fight. “Battling erosion would be the wrong way of thinking about this,” Adams says. “What we all do is adapt to the relentless natural pace of erosion—and perhaps adapt faster when erosion is sped up by climate changes.” Like their neighbors in other communities on the Cape and Islands, the residents, town officials, and beachgoers of Orleans and Eastham can certainly relate to this coastal fact of life.