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One more winter blow: disappearing Cape beaches

Marconi Beach in Wellfleet took a pounding this winter

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Marconi Beach in Wellfleet took a pounding this winter

WELLFLEET — This is the kind of summer makeover that Cape Cod can do without: dunes chewed up, vast amounts of sand eroded and rearranged, and miles of the National Seashore rendered nearly inaccessible.

Beachgoers will be excused if they do a double-take.

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“In my opinion, this is the greatest amount of loss in a short period of time since the Blizzard of ’78,” said Karst Hoogeboom, chief of facilities and maintenance for the Cape Cod National Seashore. “We were taken aback that we lost so much.”

The dramatic new landscaping is the result of a flurry of nasty nor'easters that punished the Cape over the winter, and the evidence is nearly everywhere along Cape Cod Bay and the cliff-lined shores of the Outer Cape.

Visitors to Marconi Beach in Wellfleet and Nauset Light Beach in Eastham have found barricades in place of stairs leading down newly sheared cliffs to a narrower beach on the National Seashore. In Sandwich, workers have been hustling to replenish and repair Town Neck Beach. And in Truro, Ballston Beach has been remade and reinforced since the Atlantic Ocean thundered through a breach in March.

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“I can’t see it getting much worse than this,” said Dustin Pineau, beach and recreation director in Dennis. “Instead of flowing dunes, it almost looks from the side like somebody’s been cutting into a pie plate.”

Winter’s legacy means that many beaches — at least initially — will not be as wide as they were last summer on what Henry David Thoreau called the “bare and bended arm of Massachusetts.” In Dennis, Pineau said, the newly crimped space will be most noticeable at high tide, when the bay’s long sand flats disappear and sunbathers backpedal toward the dunes.

On parts of the National Seashore, Hoogeboom said, beaches are also narrower than they normally are in early June and might be undersized for another month. At Marconi, that is only one of the unwelcome changes. New stairs are not expected to be completed there before the middle of the month; at Nauset Light, replacements were expected to be finished this week.

As he spoke, Hoogeboom stood near the site where Guglielmo Marconi made the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission from the United States in 1903. An asphalt walkway, much of it swallowed by erosion, ended prematurely at the edge of a 60-foot cliff. New fencing warned visitors to stay away.

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

A new staircase leading from a cliff to Nauset Light Beach in Eastham will open soon. The landscape has a very different look, said Ted Keon, town director of coastal resources.

“One month ago, there was at least 12 more feet here,” Hoogeboom said. “Last year, there was at least 40 more feet.”

Most of the damage was delivered by two nor’easters — a blizzard with hurricane-force gusts in February and a three-day gale in March — that scoured the east- and north-facing dunes on this vulnerable, sandy peninsula, according to meteorologist Benjamin Sipprellof the National Weather Service.

Before then, Hurricane Sandy hit the Cape with a glancing blow in late October. By the end of winter, Hoogeboom said, some park facilities were “like a boxer in the 15th round. A storm could have just breathed on us, and we would have toppled over.”

After that bruising fight, with two stairways destroyed, the only public access to a 6-mile stretch of the National Seashore was at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and Le Count Hollow Beach in Wellfleet. The sands below, although hard to reach, remain open.

Beaches also were hit hard in Sandwich, where two sets of stairs to Town Neck Beach are being replaced, said Mark Galkowski, the town’s director of natural resources. One footpath over the dunes has been opened, and an additional path can be used temporarily until the other walkways are completed, he said.

Visitors will notice a striking difference, Galkowski said.

“The dune faces are easily 40 to 50 feet landward of where they were last season,” he estimated.

Farther down the Cape, the landscape on Nauset Beach in Chatham has a dramatically different look, said Ted Keon, the town’s director of coastal resources. “Some of the large dunes that used to be there, aren’t there,” Keon said.

What the storms have taken away, however, they also have given. Sand carved from parts of the Cape is moving along the coast to replenish and improve other beaches, such as one near Chatham Light. That phenomenon also might affect beaches to the north, where Race Point in Provincetown stands to benefit from the drift of sediment from Outer Cape erosion to the south.

But at many beaches, the focus is on recovery.

Hoogeboom said stairway reconstruction will cost about $200,000 for an agency already strapped for cash. The stairs were damaged three years ago, Hoogeboom said, and they will be damaged “again, and again,” because of erosion that averages 3 feet a year.

Visitors to Nauset Light grumbled last week that repairs had not been completed by Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. That schedule had been deliberate, Hoogeboom said, because park officials remained wary of another knockdown punch from a late-season storm.

“We purposely waited until we felt we weren’t going to incur further damage,” Hoogeboom said.

The extent of the damage startled tourists and residents on the Cape last week.

“I had no idea until I got here that Cape Cod is so vulnerable,” said Anne Brendler of Seattle, after walking back from the cliff at the Marconi radio-transmission site.

At Nauset Light, four high school students lounged in a car in the parking lot instead of on the beach, which would have been their after-school preference.

“This is the worst we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” said Davis Hartnett, 17, a senior at Nauset Regional High School.

“What I’m concerned about is whether this will keep happening every winter,” added Mia Cliggott-Perlt, a classmate.

Bruce Carlisle, director of the state’s Coastal Zone Management office, said the beaches will recover and ocean-borne sand will be redeposited on them as the summer progresses.

“The beach you see on Memorial Day will look different from the beach you will see on Labor Day,” Carlisle said.

Still, on Cape Cod, no human-concocted repairs will be enough to keep the inevitable at bay forever. The pace of erosion, fluctuating but inexorable, means that this slender peninsula of sand, gravel, clay, and rock will eventually disappear.

The vanishing act will take thousands of years, but that’s the blink of an eye in geological terms.

As William Morris Davis, a Harvard geology professor, wrote in 1896: “The sands of Provinceland will be swept away as the oceanic curtain falls on this little one-act geographical drama.”

In the meantime, Cape Cod’s beaches beckon, storm-battered or not.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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