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Coastal Erosion on the Island of Nantucket
Living on the Edge

Written by Lynn

Last week there was a conference called ‘Living on the Edge: Coastal Communities’ held on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts. ‘Living on the edge’ is something Nantucketers know all about as every year they lose houses to coastal erosion. The island was once the centre of America’s whaling industry but now the main industry is tourism. Historic grey shingle clad houses line the cobbled streets of the town centre and tourists arrive daily by boat and plane.

Year round Nantucket’s population is about 15,000 but in the summer this leaps by 50,000 with an influx of wealthy second home owners from the mainland and around the world. However, many of Nantucket’s historic houses are now under threat from coastal erosion. Home insurance is a hot topic for property owners who find their premiums increase year on year. Recent maps need to be redrawn as some areas build up, others are washed away by the sea and the island migrates slowly northwards.

Earlier this month Hurricane Earl destroyed a house on the edge of the village of Madaket, the storm completed what years of coastal erosion had started. Owner Gene Ratner’s attempts to save his property with massive sandbags ultimately proved futile. Some residents in the nearby village, Siasconset, have moved their houses across the road, 50metres or so further from the bluff. But money can’t buy effective long-term sea defences for the mansions on the shoreline. And the southern shore is experiencing an erosion rate of 3metres a year.

Sarah Oktay, managing director of the University of Massachusetts field station on the island said: “It is a politically charged question, people are coming to us to try and save their houses. We offer them the maximum type of protection with the least impact.”

She thinks hard sea defences usually move the erosion problem not eliminate it. Nantucket has stricter regulations than the mainland about engineering coastal defences. According to Dr Oktay Ratner’s attempts to save his house caused an increase in erosion elsewhere.

She said: “When you do employ these measures you tend to endanger your neighbour. Any time you stop sand you are stealing it from someone.”

 

 
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