The Changing Shape of Chatham’s Barrier Beach
Editor’s note: This is the 2nd in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles.
To a first-time visitor, Chatham’s North Beach Island, South Beach, and the well-known break in the barrier beach (a.k.a. the Chatham inlet) may appear to be unique geological features that have been part of the town’s coastline forever. In reality, these areas are relatively new, crafted by the wind and waves in recent years; they are part of the changing coastline of Chatham — and of Cape Cod.
Dating back to 1958, one long barrier beach stretched southward from Nauset Beach in Orleans to the southern tip of Chatham’s Monomoy Point. That year, however, a storm separated Monomoy from the mainland; two decades later, the Blizzard of 1978 split that island in two, creating North and South Monomoy. Meanwhile, for much of the 20th century, erosion has nipped away at the barrier beach, sometimes claiming three feet in a year, sometimes as much as 19 feet.
In January of 1987, a powerful Nor’easter caused the ocean to “break” through the barrier beach immediately to the east of Chatham Light. With the waters of the Atlantic rushing into Chatham Harbor, some areas of the newly exposed coast lost more than 65 feet of shoreline within a year. Much damage was incurred, and at least one summer home was lost to the sea.
Lighthouse Beach, situated just below the Chatham Lighthouse today, was created in the years following this “break” as the northern tip of South Beach curled inward—attaching to the mainland by 1994. The spot is very popular with visitors, and great for seal viewing, though finding a parking spot in summer can be a challenge.
In April of 2007, another break in the barrier beach was created during a powerful storm on Patriot’s Day. This breach was to the north of the first break, off Allen Point in North Chatham, and transformed North Beach into an island. Whereas previously one could reach the beach from Orleans via over-sand vehicle, since the 2007 break a boat has been required to access the island. Since then, 40 cottages on the location’s unstable sand have either been claimed by the sea—or razed and removed by their owners. Where once a beachside village existed, as of the publishing of this issue, only two of the cottages remained.
Longtime Cape resident, Ryan O’Connell, and his family have firsthand knowledge of what has happened to North Beach. In 1982, the O’Connells bought a cottage on the beach’s ocean side. The structure had once been the boathouse and horse barn of the Old Harbor Life Saving Station, which was relocated to Provincetown in 1977. When the O’Connells purchased the property, the distance between the cottage and the water’s edge was so vast the family did not imagine it could one day be threatened.
“I want to say we had close to a half mile to the ocean,” O’Connell recalls. The years passed—and that distance shrank rapidly. Some years, five feet of the beach was washed away; other years, it was 10 or 20 feet or more. The turning point came following the April 2007 storm. The new break caused tremendous currents in Pleasant Bay, rapidly accelerating the erosion process. Between April and May of 2014, the ocean reclaimed the last 75 feet of shoreline standing between the O’Connells’ cottage and the water’s edge. With the ocean lapping at the piles the cottage stood on, in September of 2014 the family made the painful decision to have the cottage demolished.
As a result of time and the area’s dramatically shifting sands, another important event occurred in 2007. The southern tip of South Beach reattached to South Monomoy Island. For the first time in decades, walkers, were they so inclined, could travel on foot from the Chatham Lighthouse to South Monomoy Island. This cozy arrangement would not last for long, however. In 2013, South Beach was breached again, about one and one-half miles to the south of Chatham Light. Today, some boaters use this breach as a navigation channel.
Observers of the Chatham coastline have witnessed dramatic changes in recent years, changes including the creation of a new town beach—and the transformation of another beach into an island that is rapidly eroding. The barrier beach was broken in 1987 and again in 2013, wreaking havoc on local properties while creating new channels for boaters. What does the future hold for this community on the coast? One can only gaze out over the beautiful, ever-changing landscape, and wonder.
Christopher Setterlund is a freelance writer from South Yarmouth.