© 2024
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Life on an archipelago

The Herring River in Wellfleet flows out of a small opening in the Chequessett Neck Road Dike.
National Park Service
The Herring River in Wellfleet flows out of a small opening in the Chequessett Neck Road Dike.

Whenever a discussion on climate change turns to the issue of rising sea levels, I usually say that since our house is situated about sixty-five feet above sea level, I don’t worry that much about flooding.

The likelihood of this scenario moved from the abstract to the concrete over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in January, when torrential rains and astronomically high tides turned my town of Wellfleet into an archipelago. Bellow our house, the back road into the center of town flooded and was closed in several places. Town landings were inundated and inaccessible. Most dramatically, the dune line at Duck Harbor, which experienced a major washover two winters ago, was breached again, removing whatever remnants of dunes had survived, creating a large body of open salt water. This suggested that the breach might be permanent and that Duck Harbor might once again become a “harbor” in fact as well as in name.

None of this should surprise Wellfleetians who are familiar with the geographical history of the town. The earliest maps of Wellfleet Center reveal that it was originally a series of upland mounds separated by creeks, marshes, and other wetlands. As the town developed, these islands were connected, first by sand roads, then in 1872 by the railroad, and finally by paved roads and U.S. Highway 6.

But even a contemporary topographical map of Wellfleet Center reveals that what appears to be a solid upland is actually an archipelago of small upland mounds separated by a variety of wetlands. A leisurely but attentive walk through Wellfleet Center reveals even more clearly the underlying nature of the village. Threaded through its seemingly solid landscape is a network of narrow creeks, marshes, wet ditches, tiny ponds, and bogs, hidden or overgrown, but invisibly connected.

Ironically, this return to its original state of separated islands is likely to be hastened, not only by sea-level rise caused by global warming but by a major manmade project done in the name of environmental restoration, namely, the Herring River Restoration Project. This project is intended to rectify the damage done to the Herring River and its tributaries by the construction of a dike built in 1907. This dike, intended to control saltwater mosquitos, greatly reduced the tidal flow of the river and turned what was a productive salt marsh estuary into a brackish marsh. The new dike, currently under construction at the end of Chequessett Neck Road, is designed to restore the original tidal flow, but it may also augment the effects of a rising sea level,

Who knows? Perhaps our streets and plazas will one day become canals and the current fleet of “B buses” will be replaced by amphibious vessels and gondolas.

So yes, our modestly elevated house site might be safe from serious flooding, at least in my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean I won’t make sure our kayaks and canoes are kept in good shape, just in case we need to get somewhere.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.