By Michelle Werts

Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a place I’ve always associated with vacation cottages and well-to-do New Englanders. Little did I know that this set of islands off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is actually a hotbed for forest researchers, who are studying some interesting phenomena on this idyllic locale.

The breach of North Point Beach on April 20, 2007
The breach of North Point Beach on April 20, 2007. Credit: Bill Brine/Flickr

First, there’s the case of the forest consumed by the sea. Since an April 2007 storm breached Norton Point Beach — the storm cut this barrier beach in half — the ocean has been eating away the beach and land at Wasque Point, aka the southeast corner of Chappaquiddick Island. With the beach now gone, the waves are attacking the bluffs — and the pitch pine forest that grows there. As the bluffs go, so do the pitch pines, tumbling into the ocean currents below. And as Harvard Forest Director David Foster told the Harvard Gazette, pitch pine forests are “very salt tolerant, but they’re not that salt tolerant.”

Foster, a paleoecologist who studies how landscapes change over long periods of time, plans on bringing research fellows and students to Wasque this summer to study how this environment is rapidly changing thanks to one destructive storm and the power of the ocean. As The Trustees of Reservations Director Chris Kennedy, whose conservation group manages the area around Wasque Point, told the Vineyard Gazette, “There’s nothing to block the waves. … They’re crashing right against the cliffs, which are just sand. So we can lose 10 to 15 to 20 feet overnight.” At other points in the area, the surf is adding feet of sand to the beaches and is creating a myriad of sandbars offshore. Kennedy expects that in two to five years that part of Norton Point Beach that is migrating west parallel to the shore will reconnect to the island and hopefully reduce the extreme erosion.

A stretch of Chappaquiddick Island that is being eroded
A stretch of Chappaquiddick Island that is being eroded (pictured in July 2011). Credit: Alexander Cheek (arwcheek)/Flickr

This isn’t the only drastic change to Martha Vineyard’s landscape in the 21st century. In 2007, the island’s Polly Hill Arboretum experienced a massive oak die-off, and according to Foster, this wasn’t the first time that the Vineyard’s oaks died en masse — it had happened 5,000 years earlier. Foster and other researchers had previously studied a massive oak die-off on the island and determined that 5,000 years ago, the oaks succumbed to a warming period in Earth’s history and were replaced by beech trees that flourished for 1,000 years before the oaks were able to reassert themselves. The 2007 die-off, according to Foster, appears to be following that pattern, as insects — which were likely more prevalent due to a warming climate — attacked the trees for three consecutive years before the oaks lost the battle. Now, five years later, history continues to repeat itself as where once oak trees stood, young beech trees are rising in their place.

So, Norton Point Beach will attach itself to Wasque and thus slow the erosion that is decimating the coast, and Martha Vineyard’s birch trees, bushes and shrubs are sprouting up to take the place of the forests that were lost. We get two prime examples of how nature is always changing and always evolving — they just both happen to be on the same tiny set of islands. Astonishing.