Cape Cod residents retreat as beach crumbles into the ocean

A section of the parking lot which has collapsed due to erosion at Herring Cove Beach. Town officials decided to demolish the parking lot and construct a new one behind it, allowing for a restored shoreline in front of it.
A section of the parking lot which has collapsed due to erosion at Herring Cove Beach. Town officials decided to demolish the parking lot and construct a new one behind it, allowing for a restored shoreline in front of it.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

PROVINCETOWN (Massachusetts) • It is a simple pleasure in a classic summertime locale: Pull a car between the stripes on the parking lot here, a ribbon of asphalt parallel to the water atop a sloped wall in the sand, and look right out over the beach, where one can see Cape Cod Bay meeting the Atlantic .

But there is a problem, evident in the chunks of asphalt lying on the sand and the deep fissures in the road surface, parts of which are so damaged they are off limits to parking: The beach is eroding, and parts of this beloved spot, built in front of the dunes, not behind them, are slowly crumbling into the ocean.

The result here at the Cape Cod National Seashore raises a practical dilemma: how to react to rising seas and eroding coastlines as climate change looms.

The decision here was to demolish the parking lot and construct a new one 40m behind it, allowing for a restored shoreline in front of it. Other facilities at the beach have already been rebuilt farther back from the water.

"It's a nightmare," said Ms Mary-Jo Avellar, 70, a town official, gesturing to a metre of exposed retaining wall between the flat surface of the parking lot and the sand below. "This beach used to be pretty flat. It's been scoured out."

In many parts of the United States, such as New York, New Jersey and New Orleans, property-damaging storms, tidal surges and floods have been met with the urge to shore up and rebuild. Experts say the project at Herring Cove, Cape Cod, is a fairly rare example of the opposite approach, called "managed retreat", which involves moving away from the coastline.

Many who use the beach here do not want to fight coastal change; they simply want to adapt to it.

Professor Michael Gerrard at Columbia Law School, who is director of its Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, said: "It reflects a sound planning approach that is regrettably uncommon so far."

Managed retreat comes in many forms, in addition to the physical movement of infrastructure: buyback programmes in which a government buys vulnerable properties from private owners, or bans on new construction or hard armouring of the coast in areas susceptible to flooding or storm damage.

But it is a wrenching decision, especially when private property is involved, and it is politically difficult.

The majority of the coasts are retreating, said Mr Rob Thieler, a coastal geologist for the US Geological Survey. It is hard to tell whether individual problems with coastal erosion result from sea-level rise due to climate change, natural environmental fluctuations or damaging storms in the last few years, but this much is known: "Given the forecast of future sea-level rise over the next century and beyond, every problem that we have along the coast right now will only increase."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2016, with the headline 'Cape Cod residents retreat as beach crumbles into the ocean'. Print Edition | Subscribe