Nature Notes: The Shoreline After Sandy

It goes without saying that the shoreline suffered and was changed throughout
These Lazy Point vacation houses, already exposed by erosion, were left in a far more precarious position by Hurricane Sandy.

   We’ve been through one helluva storm and one not quite helluva. The Oct. 29 storm in many ways rivaled the hurricane of 1938, which almost wiped out eastern Long Island and much of New England. After the cleanup, the rebuilding and the getting back to normal here on the South Fork, we go about our day-to-day activities, thankful that the Big One is gone and things could be worse.
    What about the impacts of such whopper storms on the flora and fauna of land and sea and the ecotone that is the seashore between the two? What about the impact on the geology, what geologists call coastal morphology, the shape of the coast? It would seem that such a visitation with 70-mile-per-hour winds, crashing waves 20 feet high, and flood tides 12 feet high churning and about for a 24-hour period would create some major changes, both in the short run and years after.
    It goes without saying that the shoreline suffered and was changed throughout, not only along the entire Long Island-Staten Island-New Jersey shore. It will take a lot of thinking and a lot of action to put the coastline back in reasonable shape. Maybe the storm’s leaving and more than a week of suffering and doing without by hundreds of thousands of residents will finally move the Army Corps of Engineers to finish the Fire Island to Montauk Point study that has been going on for almost 40 years now at a cost of many, many millions of taxpayers dollars. Something might come of it after all, otherwise it will turn out to be just another colossal waste of money that big government is famous for.
    The seashore taken collectively around all of the world’s oceans is the largest biome that we have, other than the oceans themselves. Measured end to end and between subtidal to supratidal boundaries, the world’s seashore is much larger in area than all of the deserts, or deciduous forests, or coniferous forests, or prairies. It’s a valuable habitat for at least 100,000 plants and animals that are extremely rare, such as the federally endangered seabeach amaranth and federally threatened piping plover, both of which are found on Long Island beaches and shores.
    Much of the coastal strand vegetation has been wiped out in a single blow. Fortunately, the seeds of much of it remain viable after tumbling around in the water and many will come to rest above the high tide line and renew the near continuous swathe of sand-loving plants that reaches along the south and north coasts of the Island. That swathe, and the sea wrack, and other detritus that washes up into it, is the embryo of future dune development. It provides a little fence that catches the sand and starts building a ridge of sand parallel to the water line that can ultimately grow into a full-fledged dune when conditions are right.
    Unlike the dunes, the coastal bluffs of Montauk and Long Island Sound as well as the smaller ones of Shelter Island, Gardiner’s Island, and other spots along the Peconic Estuary’s shoreline don’t grow back. They erode one storm at a time and that’s that. The Montauk ones are particularly susceptible to erosion as they take the biggest waves of all. As they erode back, the unique strip of bluff-top habitat is lost, often permanently. The state-endangered orchid Arethusa and several other rarities grow and flower along on that narrow strip behind the face of the Montauk bluffs stretching from the Lighthouse to the western boundary of Shadmoor State Park.
    But we know very little about the longer-term impacts of an extraordinary long-duration, low-pressure system that drives and lifts up the water several feet above the norm while dramatically resculpting the bottom. What comes to mind immediately is the brown tide that so decimated the Peconic system in 1985. While a causal relationship has yet to be determined, it happened a year after a very large March 1984 northeaster that changed the shoreline and bottomlands of much of the Peconics, loosening up caches of organic nitrogen and other pollutants to waft in the water column. In September of 1985, Hurricane Gloria hit us spot on and again the shoreline and bottomlands were rewritten. The brown tide persisted until nearly the end of the 1980s, the eelgrass throughout much of the bay’s waters and their tributaries disappeared, and the scallop population dropped to nearly zero.
    But, by the same token, such meteoric storms may have a positive rather than a negative impact. Take the back-to-back storms of 1991 that hit us. They opened up a new channel between the ocean and west Shinnecock Bay, locally named Pike’s Inlet. Such an opening was followed by a favorable change in water quality and there was a huge set of hard clams and a regrowth of eelgrass. The current hard clam doldrums in the Great South Bay — once the number one producer of Mercenaria mercenaria in the United States — may just be attributable to the absence of such an overriding storm. Come next year, we will see, won’t we?
    When I was a mere tween in Mattituck on the north side of the Peconics in 1946, my father came home from work one September afternoon and said, “The scallops are back in the bay at New Suffolk.” The next day we were there with our crab nets and our hands catching them. They had been gone from much of the north side of the estuary for years and years. Oddly, there was a no-name hurricane that came along in September of 1944. It beat up Long Island Sound and the Peconics badly. Keeping in mind that the bay scallop has an average life cycle of two years, could the re-emergence of the bay scallop population two years later have had something to do with that storm?
    Except for the cost in human terms, it may be that not all large coastal storm systems are bad in all respects. It’s conceivable that a rebirth triggered by one can help put shellfish on the table for the next generation. We’ll have to keep a sharp eye out.