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Saving an Iconic New England Lighthouse from Climate Change and Coastal Erosion

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In summers past I’ve spent many delightful hours on the beach south of Gay Head Cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard, but until this year, I’d never given any thought to the threat climate change represents to the iconic lighthouse that’s perched on top of the cliffs. However, this past winter, whilst researching a UCS report about climate threats to cultural heritage sites I discovered that the National Trust for Historic Preservation had listed the Gay Head Light as one of America’s most endangered historic places. Gay Head’s famous clay cliffs are rapidly eroding, sped by accelerating sea level rise. The lighthouse is now less than 50 feet from the edge. Experts say it needs to be moved back from the brink within the next two years or it will simply topple into the sea.

Gay Head ACM

The Gay Head Light on the eroding clay cliffs of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard. Photo: Adam Markham

An island’s dynamic relationship with the sea

The coast of Martha’s Vineyard, with its exposed bluffs, barrier beaches and ponds has always been in a dynamic relationship with the sea, but the changes that human-driven climate change are bringing have no parallel in the recent past. Global average sea level has risen about 8 inches between 1880 and 2009, while the rate of increase has markedly increased, especially since 1993, and is still accelerating. Due to a variety of local factors, the stretch of the East coast of the United States from Cape Hatteras in North Carolina up to Maine has some of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the world.

In addition to sea level rise, the Northeast has experienced a greater increase in extreme precipitation since 1958 than any other region of the country, with more than a 70% increase in rainfall during the heaviest events. The National Climate Assessment also recently concluded that there is a growing risk of stronger storms in the Northeast. All of these changes are contributing to the rate at which the Gay Head Cliffs are eroding. The combination of sea level rise and storms can be particularly lethal, bringing higher waves and more wave energy crashing against the shore.

Gay Head Postcard

A Tichnor Brothers postcard of Gay Head Cliffs at night from the 1930s or 1940s. Photo: Boston Public Library.

Martha’s Vineyard, like Nantucket, is an island shaped by the Laurentide ice sheet, and formed from glacial debris during the last ice age. Much of the island is glacial moraine, but the Gay Head Cliffs, with their multi-colored hues of white, yellow, orange, red and green are an extraordinary feature, comprised of much older pre-glacial cretaceous and tertiary strata, pushed up and displaced from the ancient sea bed. Clay, kaolin, and greensand strata can all be seen in the cliffs as well as some lignite. The greensand layers in particular have been famously rich sources of fossils. In 1842, Charles Darwin’s mentor and ally the great geologist Charles Lyell visited Gay Head to examine the remarkable cliffs. He found fossil remains of shark, seal, whale and walrus there. Fossil fragments of land animals including horse, camel and mastodon have also been discovered in the Gay Head deposits.

Historic lighthouse under threat

Now the erosion of the cliffs has put one of America’s most historic lighthouses in imminent danger. Construction of the original wooden lighthouse was authorized by President John Adams in 1799. Paul Revere supplied copper for its roof and in 1805 Thomas Jefferson personally approved a pay increase for its hard-working first keeper, Ebenezer Skiff. The old lighthouse was replaced with a taller brick tower in 1855 and the next year a state-of-the-art first order Fresnel lense was installed. Only the second fitted in a US lighthouse, the French-manufactured lense weighed one and half tons and was made up of more than 1000 hand-ground prisms. Before coming to America, the Gay Head lense won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1855 as a technological marvel of the age. Martha’s Vineyard was a major whaling center and according to local author William Waterway, the burners for this powerful light were fueled by sperm whale oil until 1867 when it was converted to lard oil and then later still, to a kerosene burner. Replaced in 1952 with an automated electric beam, the original Fresnel lense is now displayed in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown.

Gay_Head_Lighthouse_circa_1913

Gay Head Lighthouse circa 1913. Photo: From the collection of William Waterway.

The first Gay Head Light was the first lighthouse built on the island and it was needed because of the busy ship traffic plying Vineyard Sound in service to the thriving whaling industry. In the days before electronic navigation devices, the waters of Vineyard Sound could be particularly treacherous because of a long rocky shoal that runs out about a quarter mile in a northwesterly direction from Gay Head Cliffs. Gay Head (now Aquinnah) was, and is, a native Wampanoag community, rich in cultural heritage. According to local tradition, a giant called Moshup wanted to build a bridge from the vineyard to Cuttyhunk island and he started to lay huge boulders in the water but a crab bit him on the toe and he retreated, leaving “Moshup’s Bridge” uncompleted and creating a major maritime hazard in the process. The legend was later Anglicized by Christian missionaries and the shoals are now better known as Devil’s Bridge. Among many victims, these dangerous reefs infamously claimed the SS City of Columbus, a passenger steamer than ran aground in January 1884 en route to Savannah, Georgia from Boston, with the loss of over 100 lives.

Saving a national landmark

Allen Whiting Gay Head 2013

Martha’s Vineyard artist Allen Whiting’s 2013 painting, Gay Head. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

The Gay Head Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and, the Gay Head Cliffs were designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1975. Now the Coast Guard Service is in the process of transferring ownership of the light to the town of Aquinnah. The town has identified a new site for the structure, about 150 feet further inland, and International Chimney Corp., the New York engineering firm that moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999 has been selected to carry-out the move. The Save the Gay Head Light Committee is working hard to raise the $3 million dollar cost of the move. Just a few weeks ago, Roseanne Cash, who counts a 19th Century Nantucket whaling captain amongst her ancestors, played a benefit concert this summer. Prominent island artists including Jeanne Staples and thirteenth generation vineyard resident Allen Whiting donated proceeds from paintings through a local gallery show, “Keep the Lighthouse in Sight”

For me, the Aquinnah coast with its pristine sands, dunes cloaked in grasses, wild roses and beach plums, is one of the most spectacularly gorgeous places on the planet. But without its lighthouse it would be a different place – beautiful still, but much the poorer for the loss of a striking visual symbol of Martha’s Vineyard and a tangible link with more than two centuries of maritime and island history. I’m pretty confident that this precious landmark will be saved by the local community’s efforts, but it does make me wonder just how many other important American historic buildings will not survive our changing climate unless we act rapidly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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About the author: Adam Markham directs the Union of Concerned Scientists’ special initiative on climate impacts. See Adam's full bio.

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