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.
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