Nature Notes: Strutting and Fretting

It’s time that we start paying serious attention to nature’s way of doing things

   Two big storms in a row; will God try for three? As Bob Dylan recited so eloquently, “Something is happening, and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” It’s like that now in the world of geoclimatology and geopolitics. The two are meshing in a most confusing way, and while wasteful wars besmirch the earth, people by the thousands are dying for no good reason and sea level rises with no sign of abatement.
    Who said “Think globally and act locally?” He was spot on. If he were to have a second coming, Plato would be wisely advising us to take care of our family first, our house and property second, our community third. But current day run-of-the-mill politicos mostly haven’t read Plato and are as scientifically astute as some of our past ones were. And frankly, Scarlet, they don’t seem to give a damn.
    Yes, there is a “fiscal cliff” to worry about, but there is also a physical cliff, and that is the higher-than-sea-level land at the edge of the sea. Nature doesn’t care about you and me and the politicos who “strut and fret their way across the stage and then are heard no more.” Nature has its own long-term plan under foot, one that was written out 13 billion years ago and has been unfolding ever since. It’s time that we start paying serious attention to nature’s way of doing things and stop messing up the earth with our strutting and fretting.
    It wasn’t more than 50 or 60 million years ago when the seas reached all the way inland in America to the Appalachians. The expanse between our present Atlantic coastline and those mountains is chock full of marine fossils. The land rises and falls, the seas follow suit. It’s been going on forever and ever. During those eons millions of species, including a few hominoid ones, have been created and 90 percent of them have bit the dust.
    Long Island is not so different than thousands of islands throughout the world that are in peril, many in immediate peril. In fact, although it is many times bigger than a good many of the islands, it is vulnerable in ways many of those islands are not. The islands in the tropical seas are large and surrounded by coral reefs that serve as a kind of a first response barrier to storm-pushed waters. Yes, many of these coral reefs are in trouble for lots of reasons, most of them anthropogenic, but they exist and efforts are being made to conserve them. Islands along our West Coast are surrounded by kelp beds that are rooted at the bottom to rocks and other hard surfaces. They can create a forest hundreds of yards wide that reaches more than 100 feet in height, that is to the top of the water column. They are strong and sway back and forth with the waves and currents, damping their energies before they hit the shore.
    Long Island does have a kind of barrier, surrounding parts of it, especially along the ocean. We call this barrier the “barrier beach.” It runs in a near continuous strip from the Rockaways on the west all the way to Shinnecock Bay. From Shinnecock Bay east it pops up here and there as at Mecox Bay in Bridgehampton and Georgica Pond in East Hampton. In a way, the Napeague isthmus is a barrier beach; it’s the only one on Long Island that separates the ocean from the sound.
    Unlike, perhaps, the coral reefs and kelp forests, the barrier beaches move toward the mainland away from the sea. That’s what happened to most of those between Montauk Point and Shinnecock Bay. They moved progressively to the north until they fused solid with the mainland.
    But locally, the land at the edge of the Peconic Estuary is protected by many smaller barrier beaches. In East Hampton Town these include the spit between Northwest Harbor and Northwest Creek, Cedar Point (which has been growing westerly, nourished by sediments washed off of Hedges Banks to the east), Sammy’s Beach at the north end of Three Mile Harbor, Cape Gerard and Louse Point fronting Accabonac Harbor, and Hicks Island between Napeague Bay and Napeague Harbor. Lately, just like Cedar Point, the Hicks Island barrier beach has been growing as the channel between Goff Point and the island has filled in and it is possible to drive a four-wheel vehicle from the point to the west end of Hicks Island.
    In Montauk, the land bounding Fort Pond on the north where the Long Island Rail Road and Navy Road run is a kind of barrier beach, while the spit bordering Oyster Pond is also one, or should I say, was one, as it has almost been entirely removed by the ravages of Sandy. Lake Montauk used to have a barrier beach fronting it, but it was removed to build a permanent inlet in the mid-1920s.
    These Peconic side barriers play a very important role. They protect the salt marshes in back of them. Remove Cape Gerard, and there goes the Accabonac Harbor salt marsh. Take away Sammy’s Beach, there goes the expansive salt marsh to its south. In North Sea in Southampton Town, the barrier beaches protect the largest and perhaps healthiest salt marsh on the South Fork, the one on the south side of Scallop Pond and Sebonac Creek.
    The latter two salt marshes are largely intact and have very little in the way of phragmites intrusion. But with rising sea level they are threatened in a different way. They need the deposition of fine silts from overwashes, mainly during storms, to keep up with the rising sea level, otherwise they will drown. Salt marsh islands in Jamaica Bay and the Great South Bay are already becoming inundated and efforts are underway to bolster them with sediments deposited, not by the action of waves and tides, but artificially by man.
    Secondarily, these very salt marshes that face prospects of permanent submergence protect the uplands they front, especially in the case of Accabonac Harbor. One can easily visualize the harbor’s waters routinely reaching to Springs-Fireplace Road on the west, Old Stone Highway on the south and Louse Point Road on the east. This last road will be the first to go underwater.
    So the hordes of politicos and the army of bureaucrats have to get together and do some strenuous planning and mitigation. Can we count on the feds and the Army Corps of Engineers to solve the problem? Probably not, after all, in the 40 years it has been going on, they have let the Fire Island to Montauk Point barrier beach study sink into a deep black hole. At this point it may not be possible to retrieve and finish it in time to save what’s left of that barrier. Will we submerge as the sea level rises indifferently, or will we rise above it? That is the question.