THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

On the Cape, sand and a bit of paradise lost

Winter storms battered beaches and left much to fix before summer sets in

Workers installed a section of a new staircase being built at Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. Workers installed a section of a new staircase being built at Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / May 30, 2010

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WELLFLEET — Storms battered and gnawed the state’s coastline so relentlessly over the winter that many beach visitors this holiday weekend will find wave-sheared bluffs, shrunken sun-bathing space, and some manmade walkways to popular sandy spots destroyed.

At the Cape Cod National Seashore, Marconi Beach is closed this weekend as workers rush to replace, within the next two weeks, washed-away stairs that lead from bluffs to the sparkling waters below. Bicyclists on a beloved trail to the Seashore’s Coast Guard Beach — named last week as one of the nation’s top 10 beaches — will have to take a detour until July, while a 300-foot-long bridge over Nauset Marsh that was lifted by the storm surge and carried away is repaired.

“We basically had about the worst damage to the Seashore since the blizzard of ’78,’’ said George Price, Cape Cod National Seashore superintendent. “That’s because we occasionally will have storm damage at one facility or another, but there was a series of storms, starting with the one right before Christmas, right through.’’

Shifting sands are a fact of life on outer Cape Cod, and the endless pulse of summer waves is expected to gradually restore much or all of beach losses. But coastal geologists said the endless fury of this winter’s storms had a greater than usual impact, eating away enormous pieces of beach from Salisbury to the more-sheltered Brewster on Cape Cod Bay. At the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, some high tides now overrun entire sections of the beach. Chatham lost a chunk of a town landing parking lot. On Chappaquiddick, an estimated 270 feet of barrier beach was taken away and waves have eroded a parking lot on Trustees of Reservations land.

Twenty-two major storms pummeled the Northeast from December through March, according to meteorologist Jesse Ferrell at AccuWeather.com, a forecasting company. He said it is often easy to overlook the collective power of winter storms because, unlike hurricanes, they are not named and as a result, often not counted. Plus, there are usually, at most, a handful of them a year — hardly stuff for the record books.

“But this was the year of the winter coastal storm,’’ Ferrell said. The sheer number of them, including several giants — Ferrell’s company called the powerful nor’easter that hit in February a “Snowicane’’ — made meteorologists take notice.

Every year, parts of the coast stand out as hot spots of erosion. Chatham’s endlessly changing geography sometimes forces mariners to update nautical charts with pencil every few months.

Yet Graham Giese, a senior scientist and geologist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, said the erosion was more uniform this year and coastline disappeared in communities along Cape Cod Bay where such loss is less common than on the outer Cape.

The erosion may escape the notice of many visitors, however. Beachgoers will no doubt notice worn-away parking lots, but most beaches will simply look their gorgeous summer selves to visitors who usually have little visual frame of reference to judge how much is gone.

And if they do, they can be consoled knowing that Mother Nature will soon give back much of what she took. Most of the sand doesn’t go far offshore and long low summer waves often carry it back to beaches, making them broader and softening steep bluffs.

By Labor Day (just in time for the end of summer), beaches have generally been given back much of the sand they lost. While beaches can experience overall loss, that summer sand replenishment is critical to keeping long-term erosion at bay.

“That’s why we don’t say washed away, we say displaced,’’ says Giese. In his more than 50 years studying coastal erosion on Cape Cod, he said, he has never seen “as much uniform cutting. It’s everywhere.’’

That may mean fewer places to sit on some beaches until the sand gets built up again. But beachgoers are already seeing a rebuilding of some of the beach — especially the area between high tide and low tide marks, as waves begin their annual rite of re-depositing sand there.

At least one area is unlikely to be fully restored, however — the beach between Wasque and Norton points on Chappaquiddick. There, David Babson, superintendent of the Chappaquiddick unit of the Trustees of Reservations, had made rough measurements that now show enormous pieces of a barrier beach and now, part of a parking, lot gone. A 2007 breach in Norton Point Beach has caused considerable erosion in that area, but this year’s storms ate away more than any other year since then.

“It’s dramatic,’’ said Babson.

The National Park Service and many communities, such as Brewster, have worked hard this spring to rebuild town landings and repave eroded parking spots. But in many cases, work couldn’t begin until authorities were confident no fierce spring storms would wash away their efforts.

And in some places, there is nothing to build upon. In Chatham, Coastal Resource manager Ted Keon said the small number of parking spaces at Scatteree landing was further reduced by the winter storm pummeling.

“We’ve had to retreat,’’ Keon said, saying there is no land left to replace some of the spots. The community has suffered intense erosion — including the loss of some homes — in the three years since a 2007 spring storm punched a hole in Nauset Beach. “It was bad on both sides of our coast.’’

At Marconi Beach in Wellfleet on Friday, a huge sign greeted visitors at the beach entrance, informing them that it was closed. But still, some came, parked in the empty lot and carried beach towels and chairs. All were turned away. There was no way down the sheer cliff face. “We’ll go somewhere else,’’ said Sarah Conway, 31, of Henniker, N.H., who was visiting with three friends. With relatives living nearby, she said she knew of other beaches. Officials are hoping to have the beach reopened within two weeks.

National Seashore officials succeeding in rebuilding washed-away stairs at Nauset Light Beach in time for this weekend.

Bicyclists hoping to visit Coast Guard Beach via the scenic Nauset Marsh bike bridge this weekend will be greeted by a sign and staff waiting to direct them on a detour down Doane Road. The series of winter storms ripped the bridge from its pilings.

But with the narrowness of Doane Road and the abundance of vehicular traffic, National Seashore officials are warning inexperienced riders or small children not to ride on it.

“We’re working hard to get it repaired as quickly as possible,’’ said Price.

Beth Daley can be reached bdaley@globe.com.

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