Op Ed - Climate Change on Cape Cod

by Kara Finnerty, Bowdoin College student and Cape Cod resident

What does climate change mean for Cape Cod, a place called home by many and a beloved summer destination for many more? As someone whose family has recently moved to a full-time residence on Cape Cod after having spent every summer I can remember enjoying all that the region has to offer, I find myself questioning what the future holds for Cape Cod when it comes to climate change.

A Boston Globe article published last year indicated that the Northeastern United States will experience the predicted effects of global warming sooner than other parts of the country. That is, to say, before the upper limit of 2ºC above pre-industrial levels (as determined in the Paris Agreement) is reached. In Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are likely to be the first to see the more drastic effects of rising sea levels, as they have already witnessed erosion, shoreline changes, and other consequences attributable to a changing climate. As another Globe article points out, it was climate change that shaped and created the Cape Cod that many know and love today. Climate change will continue to do so, although we can expect it to take less time due to the accelerated rate of climate change.

What will climate change’s more severe storms and resulting coastline changes means for the real estate market and the influx of seasonal visitors on Cape Cod? Despite the threat that more frequent severe weather poses to year-round housing on the water, a lot of prospective buyers are still interested in to property on Cape Cod. Due to a high demand from buyers and not enough property being sold, real estate prices on Cape Cod are continuing to increase. Winter storms are getting more and more extreme as the climate warms, affecting the location and size of sand deposits, creating cliffs out of what were previously dunes, and causing the coastline to recede, among other observable changes. Therefore, the risks as well as the costs of living in a home near the water are increasing as well. These changes have led to increased awareness among buyers regarding rising sea levels and increased flood risks as well as flood insurance. Although some buyers have consequently rethought their decision to look for a home near the water or in a coastal region, others have decided that these costs and risks are worth having a house near the water.

Many current residents have already made accomodations in hopes that their homes can withstand storms and flooding. Some who have owned property near the water have even already had to make the difficult decision to demolish homes, as they’ve watched the distance between their porches and the water decrease rapidly over the years. If they haven’t been necessary already, certain accommodations or renovations will be required in the near future for homeowners on the Cape. Building or renovating a house and making accommodations for the increased risk of flooding and more severe storms is an expensive project.

Changes in the Nauset-Monomoy Barrier Islands from 1984 to 2013 can be seen in the satellite images below

Can we fight coastal change on Cape Cod or must we simply adapt to it? Although it is not certain that past emissions alone will raise global surface temperatures 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels, those past emissions will cause further rises in sea levels. As such, it appears that infrastructural changes will have to be made to adapt to and prepare for eventual and inevitable environmental changes. Rob Thieler of the United States Geological Survey has found that “managed retreat” is the best response to receding coastlines - in 2016, the parking lot of Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown was relocated farther away from the water, as the previous lot had begun falling apart due to erosion. Herring Cove Beach is not the only beach that has faced this kind of dilemma and it certainly will not be the last, as the effects of climate change will only be seen more and more frequently, even if current and future behavior were to change.

Although we cannot predict exactly what will happen to the Cape and Islands in the future, it is certain that preemptive change is necessary in order to preserve what we can of the places that many of us, whether year-round residents or seasonal visitors, hold near and dear to our hearts.


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