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Shifting Sands

It’s a cloudy April day in Ipswich and Crane Beach is almost deserted, save for a small group carrying two poles attached by a length of line. Starting at the top of the beach, they inchworm downward towards the waves, calling out numbers as they go. “Sometimes it’s almost like someone takes a giant trowel to a dune and spreads it back into the ocean,” says volunteer Ian Hayes, describing the changing pro le of the beach. “Other times there’s a storm and it drives everything back up.”

Along with his wife Anne, Hayes has come to Crane as part of a dedicated volunteer group tracking the morphology of the beach as its shape fluctuates, in uenced by tides, storms, and seasons. They use a profiling system called the Emery Method— a technique first introduced in 1961 which utilizes two graded poles and the Earth’s horizon as a reference point—to achieve accuracy. Measurements are taken in three-meter intervals once a month on the day of the lowest tide, starting from a fixed control point.

“It’s one of those things that takes longer to describe than it does to actually do it,” jokes Hayes, whose group has the process down to 20 minutes. “We start up by the dunes and go down to the water line. It’s amazing the changes you see between the times you go, but it’s also amazing how consistent the measurements tend to be along our transect.”


Three of these “transects,” or segments, were divided amongst a dozen trained volunteers when the program began in August 2018. The incoming data is allowing Trustees ecologists to map a vertical pro le of the beach and establish a baseline of conditions, in preparation for an unsettled future.

“Climate change and sea level rise are looming,” says Jeff Denoncour, Trustees Coastal Ecologist. “This is our first step to begin to more closely monitor how the beach is changing. These systems are dynamic and there are many physical influences, so we’re taking a look at the numbers and watching the trends.”

Together with ongoing horizontal tracking, done by walking the length of the beach along the start of the dunes and the mean high tide line with a GPS, the vertical pro le will help ecologists quantify—and communicate—how the beach is changing on a regular basis. As Hayes points out, “unless you have a baseline, all you can do is guess.”

The beach pro ling at Crane launched the summer after Woods Hole Group completed a climate vulnerability assessment of Trustees coastal properties, looking ahead 10 and 50 years. It  agged beaches as one of the most “at risk” natural areas, stating that Crane’s popular beach and plover habitat will likely see regular  ooding by 2030.

Today, with nearly a year’s worth of pro ling data from the three transects along Crane Beach, program coordinators hope to expand the program for a broader picture. It’s a unique volunteer opportunity. “When we started thinking about how to engage volunteers in our coastal strategy, this became the first big ticket thing,” says Marc Mahan, Trustees Acting Volunteer Program Manager. “It’s something completely different than what volunteers
have had the opportunity to do with The Trustees in the past. This is a long-term, ongoing engagement.”


The unique engagement has also extended into the classroom, with an Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School class taking part in December during a unit on sandy habitats. “Ultimately this is going to become part of our curriculum that we will do [several] times a year,” says Environmental Technology Instructor Tony Wilbur, who worked for the MA O ce of Coastal Zone Management before a desire to train the next generation of environmental leaders brought him to the classroom. “It’s making what they learn real.”

The exercise allowed the students to think like stewards: How would you best monitor and protect the health of this beloved resource, one of the few remaining barrier beaches in New England where the near absence of human infrastructure has left the landscape wild and largely unimpeded?

This is the very question driving the pro ling program, made possible by volunteers like Hayes, who come from a range of backgrounds but now share a common title: citizen scientists. “We’re taking people with very different day-to-day lives, some of whom haven’t been ecology volunteers in the past,” says Mahan. “This has ignited a scientific curiosity. To me, that’s what our opportunity is, turning properties into laboratories and involving volunteers in the measuring and monitoring behind our stewardship and ecology goals—well-trained, passionate people who now have a piece in the protection of these properties.”

Hayes adds, “If you love the beach and you want to help preserve it, here’s a great project. It’s love of the beach, it’s love of The Trustees, and it’s wanting to take action. It’s really interesting how far you can go with citizen science.”

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