Climate change threatening largest salt marsh in New England

NEWBURY, Mass. — Mother Nature’s fury is devastating different parts of the country.

Historic wildfires are consuming millions of acres out West, while a constant barrage of powerful storms is slamming into the Gulf Coast.

Climate change is getting the blame for making both situations worse.

Fortunately, nothing so dramatic is happening here in Massachusetts right now. Still, scientists believe our environment is under a serious threat even if we can’t necessarily see it.

A team of earnest volunteers is trying to stop the relentless march of the ocean on the North Shore.

Russ Hopping, the Lead Ecologist for Trustees of the Reservation, said this is an innovative project that has never been done on this scale before.

This project, which involves cutting marsh grass and using it to fill old agricultural ditches, is taking place in Old Town Hill in Newbury. This area is part of the Great Marsh ecosystem. With 16,000 acres of wetlands, it’s the largest salt marsh of its kind in New England.

“We want to tweak the marsh so that nature can do all the heavy lifting, do the work for us to maintain not only a buffer for storm surge and sea-level rise. . . but also preserve critical habitat,” explained Hopping.

Wetlands act like a sponge when ocean levels rise.

Preserving them is just part of a report produced by the Trustees: State of the Coast: Future Climate Driven Risks and their Solutions on Massachusetts' North Shore.

The Trustees are a non-profit that oversees many of the state’s environmental treasures.

Tom O’Shea, Director of Coast and Natural Resources at the Trustees, said the North Shore could lose some of its popular beaches. “Crane Beach, for instance, is losing more beach than any other beaches on the North Shore, so that’s why we’re really concerned. . . We’re seeing things like our marsh is sinking and becoming regularly flooded.”

Some of the Trustees' most iconic properties are on the North Shore which is why the report zeroed in on 13 communities that stretch up to the New Hampshire border.

“There are a lot of things that make the North Shore special, obviously the scenic beauty of the North Shore I think grabs everyone’s attention,” said O’Shea. “The rocky coast down in Cape Ann, and then you get these beautiful beaches like Crane Beach. It’s just outstanding.”

The report also detailed how some of the most densely developed communities, like Newburyport or Salem, could be devastated by more frequent flooding.

“We’re seeing our roads now become more flooded, not only just thru storms, but even daily or monthly flooding events, and so people are starting to witness changes that are really unprecedented,” added O’Shea.

When asked about the feasibility of stopping climate change, O’Shea replied “I think at this point in time we’re not stopping the process from happening. What we’re really doing is making choices to either adapt in some cases or relocate. . . So, you’re really looking at in the next 10-20 years is for people to really make some changes that prepare us, prepare the North Shore, for what is to come.”

What is to come is a future that could be dire for a local favorite like Crane Beach in Ipswich. Erosion has already eaten up an area the size of 84 football fields since the 1950s.

Trustees for the Reservation plans to follow up this North Shore report with ones focused on Cape Cod and the South Shore.

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