Home » 7th Season: 2019-2020 » 2019-2020 v.02 » Conservation and Sustainability on the Island of Nantucket: A Study Funded by The Matthews Grant

Conservation and Sustainability on the Island of Nantucket: A Study Funded by The Matthews Grant

By Alie Hyland and Sam Leslie, VI Form

Conservation and Sustainability on the Island of Nantucket: A Study Funded by The Matthews Grant

Editor’s Note: The Matthews Fund provides grants to students of any form who are good citizens and solid students. Awards are based on merit and need as determined by a faculty committee. No awards will be given for athletic purposes. Grants are made for special needs such as tutoring assistance, special instruction, seminars, academic experiences of a national or international nature, and personal growth and advancement opportunities.


Our grant was focused on studying small island conservation and sustainability, and we chose Nantucket since it is close to St. Mark’s and because many students, faculty, and alumni have ties to the island.  We stayed on the island for one week in June of 2019 and biked to various locations around the island including the Sconset bluffs, the Bartlett Farm, and the town center. Thanks to the Matthews Grant, we were able to explore a passion that we might not have had the opportunity to research otherwise.  This paper shows our findings from the trip and includes pictures from our research. 

Sustainable Farming

Sustainable farming is the practice of using farming methods to ensure that the next generation will have food. At Pumpkin Pond Farm, all of the produce is certified organic, meaning they only use sustainable farming practices. Produce must be grown without pesticides, irradiation, and genetically modified organisms to be certified organic. Food irradiation is the process of using gamma rays, x-rays, or electron beams to preserve and extend the shelf-life of produce. Pumpkin Pond Farm has certified organic fields and greenhouses, and we were able to see and put into practice their sustainable farming methods. We met with Jordan, one of the farmers, who gave us a tour of the farm and showed us how we could help that day. The produce is planted in rows of four, and the farmers use all-natural fish fertilizer instead of harmful pesticides to help the plants grow and preserve the soil. We watered the rows of vegetables, which included baby spinach and kale, using a mixture of water and the fish fertilizer. Jordan also showed us the three certified organic greenhouses that the farm uses to grow smaller plants. Greenhouses support the environment since the CO2 emissions from machines used to regulate the temperature are captured and reused instead of being released into the atmosphere. Similar farming methods are used at Bartlett’s Farm, which is located a few miles from Pumpkin Pond Farm. Bartlett’s Farm is the oldest family-run sustainable farm on the island, and it also one of the largest. They have over 100 acres for planting food and flowers, 20 of which are certified organic, and 19 certified organic greenhouses. 

Farmland at Pumpkin Pond Farm

The island of Nantucket is located 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, so a ferry must deliver any food that the island does not produce. This process is harmful to the environment due to the amount of CO2 emissions from both the ferry and the trucks required to transport the goods. Self-sufficiency is particularly important to the island in the event weather conditions that interfere with ferry travel, for residents must rely on locally-sourced sustenance when food cannot be brought to the island. Produce from Nantucket farms is also grown without harmful pesticides and is healthier than outsourced fruits and vegetables. 

Bartlett’s Farm, Moors End Farm, Pumpkin Pond Farm, and Community Farm Institute are some of the main farms on Nantucket that produce food for restaurants and residents of the island. These farms compete with each other when selling their produce, which allows for a competitive market. Almost every farm sells its produce to local restaurants; for example, Pumpkin Pond Farms sells its goods mostly to upscale restaurants because they can afford expensive fresh produce. The organization Sustainable Nantucket runs a weekly farmers market during summers on the island where local farms have the opportunity to set up stands and sell their produce to Nantucket residents and tourists. The farms currently do not produce at a volume high enough to negatively impact the island grocery stores.

Impact of Erosion

Sand dunes that used to be covered in lush green plants are now sharp bluffs.  All over Nantucket, this change has pushed the coastline back, which affects the lifestyle around the island, but this is most prominent in Siasconset.  This is the easternmost part of the island, which is most exposed to storms, wind, and currents that eat away at the sand dunes. On top of these natural eroding factors, infrastructure has caused an increase in erosion.  Although erosion is most visible at Sconset, there is evidence of it all over the island.  

Coastal erosion is when natural (wind, currents, rain, etc.) or unnatural (buildings, etc.) factors wear away at the coast.  The loose sentiment erodes first since it does not take much power or energy to move, and then the aforementioned eroding factors start to destroy the harder rock by loosening the topmost layers.  The wind or ocean transports the sand to a new area of the world leaving steep dunes or bluffs. Islands such as Nantucket are barrier islands because they help protect the mainland coastline from erosion, but this means that the erosion of these islands is worse than on the mainland.  Although coastal erosion is natural, there has been a recent, substantial increase in the phenomenon, which is not natural or healthy for the environment. There are three main reasons for the increase in erosion: violent hurricanes, rising sea levels, and human interference. Hurricanes are becoming progressively worse as sea levels and surface temperatures rise, and these hurricanes cause increased damage to the coastline since the wind speeds, rain levels, and wave power all increase.  Another factor that increases erosion is rising sea levels. As the water in the ocean increases in temperature, it expands, which leads to more current exposure on the shoreline. The third primary reason for the increase in erosion is human interaction. As more homes and buildings are built on shorelines, the rocks and sentiment can loosen, which makes it easier for rain, wind, and waves to erode the coastline. Coastal erosion is a naturally occurring process, but in recent years, humans have caused an acceleration in coastal erosion, and this harms coastal ecosystems and could lead to the disappearance of entire islands.

In response to the degradation of the island, locals on Nantucket started organizations and projects to combat erosion.  Their goal by doing this is to protect Nantucket so that future generations can enjoy it as much as the current locals do.  The local residents formed the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund to start raising awareness about the issue, and this small group grew into the Erosion Control Project that then invested in geotextile tubing.  This anti-erosion system works by creating a fake bluff so that the water and wind hit the tubing rather than the sand bluff. Because the geotextile tubing is extremely resistant to degradation, years of wind and waves should have little impact on the fake bluffs.  With these in place, the coastline will stop receding, which will protect the environment and wildlife living there.

The geotextile tubing is effective but only in place in Sconset, so the rest of the island has various other measures in place to stop the erosion.  Some of the most common ones include private and public wood barriers, rock walls, and protected lands. Waves hit some of these structures while others are set further back to protect the dunes.  In both cases, these structures protect vulnerable land from erosion, but they are more temporary solutions compared to the geotextile tubing since they can degrade over time. Some smaller efforts include building homes further from the shoreline since new buildings can help progress the erosion.  These artificial measures will help protect the Nantucket coastline, but they are not permanent.

Geotextile tubing to prevent erosion

Along with artificial measures being taken, some have elected to use more natural means to protect the coast.  Beach grass and sand replenishment efforts help to prevent erosion as well. The beach grass grows roots deep into the sand dunes, which helps hold them in place, and as the grass grows tall, it acts as a natural barrier against the wind.  The dunes erode less as a result of the beach grass, which protects the wildlife and ecosystem on the island. Some have tried constantly replacing the sand erodes along the coastline by the ocean and the weather, but this practice is not a long term solution and not very sustainable as it takes a lot of sand from somewhere to replace all that is lost. However, as a short term preventative measure, it is better than not acting at all.  These natural means have potential, but due to the extreme extent of some of the erosion, greater measures must be taken in certain areas on Nantucket.

Wooden barriers to protect the land surrounding a home from coastal erosion

When we were on Nantucket, we saw the effects of coastal erosion and the importance of conservation firsthand.  The first day we were there, we visited a beach near the Sconset bluffs, and this beach had clearly been eroded as it was quite steep, but it was nothing compared to the bluff.  As we got down closer to the water, we were hesitant to wade in since we were concerned there would be big drop-offs. We then biked over to the bluffs where we saw just how catastrophic the damage was.  The bluffs were easily 50 feet tall and continued down most of the visible coastline. In the following days, we continued to look at various areas of the island where erosion was a prominent issue. On most of the island, we saw all the different structures listed above and evidence of erosion.  The impact of the damage was clear, and when talking with residents of the island, they were all very concerned with the future effects erosion may have.

Alie Hyland is a VI form day student from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. She enjoys photography, playing soccer, and working with children.

Sam Leslie is a VI form day student from Sudbury, Massachusetts.  She is interested in biology and government, and she spends her time outside the classroom playing soccer and squash.

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