Sunday, July 3, 2022

When We Were Young: Beach Surveys in Rhode Island


Once upon a time, during a previous life, I conducted beach profile surveys for the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the long official name, as printed on my pay checks). A technician or other graduate student and I would drive to the beaches every two weeks and survey the shape of the foreshore as far as the water line. We would survey from eight monuments (posts) that had been driven into the sand on the backshore in the dunes. In summer, we waded a distance offshore. It was a lot of fun. Summers were sunny and easy, and we mysteriously needed a full day to complete the surveys. We became dark bronze from the sun. In winter, we bundled up and sometimes slipped on the sand if it was frozen. 

Rhode Island's south shore is less developed than the coasts of many other states. This is an offshoot of the damage wrought by the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Waves and surge from the hurricane destroyed entire communities on the south shore. Afterwards, the state wisely zoned large stretches of the barrier islands and salt ponds to be preserved as nature reserves or wildlife sanctuaries. As a result, Rhode Island's beaches today are surprisingly clean and traditional. Developers were not able to rape the environment by building multi-floor condominiums or vast McMansion tracts (in contrast, see the horrors of coastal Florida, New Jersey, Alabama, and other states). 

At the beach

Peat chunks on Charlestown Beach, August, 1976 (Kodachrome 25 slide)

After a storm, pieces of peat sometimes get washed onto the beach. The peat formed in the quiescent salt ponds, which were protected from ocean waves by barrier islands. As the barrier islands and spits retreat, the peat gets exposed on the open ocean side and is vulnerable to being broken up into chunks. This is proof of the barrier island rollover mechanism by which rising sea level causes the barriers to retreat landward. 

Yes, we had rising sea level back in 1976. We still have it, despite denials by scumbag politicians (you guess the party). We also were beginning to study the effects of greenhouse gasses on heat trapping in the atmosphere and reflectivity of solar radiation.

House remnants from before 1938 hurricane, Charlestown Beach, August 1976
Mr. Michael Schneck at old pilings, Charlestown Beach, August 1976 

When I was a student in Rhode Island in the late 1970s, I talked to people who lived through the 1938 hurricane. The memories seared them. They told me that old-timers always knew that any house at the coast should be little more than a vacation cottage with the cast-off furniture from the city house. If the storm knocked it off its posts, move it back on some new posts and re-furnish it with new castoff fittings. They scoffed at rich city slickers who built grand permanent houses next to the beach. That was the 1970s! Just visit the Outer Banks, coastal Florida, parts of Alabama, and numerous other beaches to see the monstrosities erected by developers since then.

Dr. Dan Urish enjoying the view and lunch, East Beach, August 1976

What wonderful summer days. At campus, I swam every day at lunch out to the buoys in Narragansett Bay. 

Barge formerly buried for 85 years, Charlestown Beach, December 1976
Oops. No sun bathing this day, Charlestown Beach, January 1977
Semi-exposed barge, Charlestown Breachway, Charlestown Beach, January 1977

Winter at the shore is usually quiet. Bathhouses are forlorn, as if they are waiting for their cheerful summer visitors. I wrote about Rhode Island bathhouses in 2010. 

Mr. Steve Yokubaitis, Weekapaug Beach, January 1977

On this fresh scarp, you can see roots and rhizomes throughout the sand. This shows that this dune had been mature and stable for many years before storm waves removed the seaward section. The shore face (to the very right) is covered with cobble, which is common on this formerly glaciated terrain.  

Charlestown Beach, January 30, 1977

Homeowners often hired contractors with bulldozers to push sand up to the houses. I think this was technically illegal, but do not recall if there was any legal action. 

Different states use different criteria to define private property versus public land. Public sand does not belong to private landowners, even if they think it is theirs to use. In effect, what is the definition of shoreline? Geographers and politicians have argued about this for over two centuries. If you are interested in the topic, NOAA has posted a list of shoreline references. Shalowitz' Shore and Sea Boundaries is a defining reference and summarizes technical and legal aspects of determining maritime boundaries in the United States. We will see more controversy related to shoreline definition as beaches retreat on most US coasts in the face of rising sea level (as a result of the climate change that millions of delusional Americans deny is underway).

In the next article, I will write about the Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Oops, sometimes we had to shovel the car out of the snow to get to the beach
Beginning of the great Northeastern Blizzard of '78 (flash photograph)

The Northeastern United States Blizzard of 1978 dropped record amounts of snow throughout New England. The Boston area was closed to outsiders for almost two weeks. We did not fare too badly in southern Rhode Island. We lost electricity, but we had down sleeping bags and did not have any issues. We cooked on a Bleuet GAZ camping stove. Those were the days.

The photographs above were all Kodachrome 25 or 64 slides, most from my Nikkormat FTn camera or my Leica IIIC, which I still use. I scanned them with a Plustek 7600i scanner operated with Silverfast Ai software.


Suzassippi said...

This was fun and interesting with quite a bit of exotica to it!

Mike said...

What a great job for a young guy. I wish I had done the same at that age. I was already 37 when I finally wised up and got back to my Idaho roots. said...

That was not a full-time job but rather a graduate assistantship funded by the state. I was a M.S. student at the URI School of Oceanography in the late-1970s. As I noted, another life, another time.

Jim Grey said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts and reflections.

I remember in the 80s enduring an argument between my dad and my brother, one of probably a thousand they had. My brother was probably 16. There had been some event, maybe a storm, that had destroyed a large number of elaborate beachfront houses. The wealthy owners were wringing their hands over seeking federal aid to recover their losses. For whatever reason my dad was in favor of it. My brother's point, and it struck me even then how good it was, was: why in the hell would you build such an expensive home in a place where you *know* that weather, erosion, and rising sea levels emperil the place? It's silly to expect the government to bail you out when you did something so obviously stupid.

I love these Kodachrome images. Makes 1977 look like just the other day. said...

Kodachrome slides were amazingly stable. But they are hard to scan even with the Kodachrome profile in Silverfast software if the original slides are not bright and well exposed. I think Nikon Coolscan 4000 at the office worked better than my Plustek.

As for expensive beach houses in hazardous locations, your brother was correct. But it is complicated.

1. The Federal flood insurance program reimbursed long-term beach residents. So of course they rebuilt.

2. More recent beach property owners are essentially playing the odds game. Can they rent their property for enough years to get their money back out of the investment before there is a major storm that damages the property? Or, can they enjoy the property for a few years, sit on the appreciation, and sell just before the damaging storm? My guess is with more frequent and severe storms/hurricanes, rich coastal owners will have more trouble cashing in on their gamble.

3. Silly to expect the government to bail them out. No, rich and powerful people know politicians and can arrange a lot of reimbursements for disasters. They deny that it is "socialism," it's "capitalism" of the American form. Private industry builds something and the taxpayer bails out the disaster. Note it is middle class or poor inland residents who bail out rich people's beachfront home emergency declarations.