Nature Notes: A New, Wetter World

No matter how well we think we are prepared, there will be hell to pay

The cosmos is expanding at an accelerated rate. There are thousands of meteorites ranging in size from a hardball to an aircraft carrier in crazy orbits and asymmetric paths in our solar system; small ones hit the earth annually. A big one like the one that smacked down in the center of Russia last year could hit somewhere in America within the next 10 years. The earth is pockmarked with craters from the strikes of asteroids and meteorites, as is the moon.

The universe is filled with uncertainty. Our solar system is filled with uncertainty. Earth itself is filled with uncertainty. What will be the next natural disaster to visit us? Tornado, hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, meteorite strike, volcanic eruption? You name it. Closer to home, here on Long Island it’s only a matter of time before something as big or bigger than Sandy will hit us, and no matter how well we think we are prepared, there will be hell to pay.

Not only are there myriad short-term disaster possibilities out there, there also some long-term ones afoot. They do more damage than the one-day and two-day ones, but they do it in slo mo, so you don’t perceive its happening.

Take the rising sea level, for example. It’s rising at a snail’s pace so you can’t see the inkling of a change day to day, week to week, month to month, or even year to year. But the seas are rising, at least on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Rising sea level is our biggest fear in the long run.

Take a shallow embayment like Accabonac Harbor. The four roads that bound it, Gerard Drive, Fireplace Road, Old Stone Highway, and Louse Point Road, are never more than two feet above present-day sea level throughout their lengths, and only about a foot or so above sea level for half their lengths. The one-to-two-foot rise of marine waters postulated for the turn of the century will triple the size of the harbor. The sea water will stretch from road to road in whichever direction you choose to look. What are now lawns and gardens will become salt marsh or a continuous sward of phragmites. Basements will be filled with water; private wells will pump brackish water that will be undrinkable.

Lake Montauk’s shores, too, offer little relief to overriding seas, especially on the west and south sides where the terrain is low and only slightly above sea level. All of Ditch Plain will be under water. On the west side the lake’s waters will stretch to the Montauk Downs golf course. Star Island will be completely under water.

The residences and businesses along both sides of Fort Pond in Montauk will fare better, but beware the ones on the north and south side. Fort Pond will ultimately become part of Fort Pond Bay on the north and the Atlantic on the south. Downtown Montauk will be entirely cut off by water. Montauk Highway will require a bridge to cross it. One can see it happening today by driving, biking, or walking along Second House Road to where it meets Industrial Road on the north.

The next time you are there, take a look at “Brushy Island” standing a couple of hundred feet off the shore. When I started working for East Hampton Town, there were trees and shrubs on it, one could walk on it, it was firm. When Norman Taylor botanized Montauk in the early 1920s, he found the only American basswood in Montauk at that time growing on the island. The basswood is not a wetland tree; it grows on upland soils! Ninety years later, the woody vegetation on the island is half-submerged, the tupelo trees are all dead, Brushy Island is now called Turtle Island by the locals and has become a prime roosting area for double-crested cormorants.

What about that marvelous piece of land, the Napeague stretch? Napeague Bay will eventually reach the ocean, not just after a superstorm like Sandy, but permanently. Except for the dunes along the south side, the rest of the land is barely above sea level. The state highway is higher than the land on both sides, yet it is only a few feet above sea level. Half of the pitch pine forest that flanks the north and south sides of the road on the western part of the isthmus is close to sea level. It will be under water by 2050. Again, unless the road is considerably elevated, say as the Long Island Rail Road to the north, one will need a mile-long bridge — a causeway? — to get from downtown Amagansett to Montauk by car.

In the Village of East Hampton, Hook Pond will reach from the ocean shore to the Long Island Rail Road. Town Pond will begin at the flagpole between James Lane and Main Streets and extend southward along Ocean Avenue. A hundred years ago it was only a swamp!

Three Mile Harbor on Gardiner’s Bay is high along its west and east sides, but the land immediately south of the southernmost marina and the trianglular wedge of land through which Tan Bark Creek runs on its way to the harbor and that father south to beyond the Springy Banks Road junction will become regularly lapped by the harbor.

And there will be no need for the East Hampton Trustees to biannually let Georgica Pond out of its cage. It will become a permanent arm of the ocean and that arm will eventually reach well to the north of the rest area on Route 27.

It’s not a cozy, dry scenario in store for East Hampton, but a very wet one, indeed. If you are thinking of moving to Southampton Town or, perhaps, to the North Fork, you will find that half of those two areas will be under water or, at the very least, subject to frequent tidal flooding. During the latter part of the century, south of the highway will be moving to north of the highway. It will be a completely different world, but most likely still very crowded in the summertime.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at