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The Changing Shape of Chatham’s Barrier Beach

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.



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