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New England Barriers

  • Duncan M. FitzGerald
  • Peter S. Rosen
  • Sytze van Heteren

Summary

The coast of New England is vastly different from the barrier island-coastal plain setting of the Eastern Seaboard south of Long Island, and from the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. Several episodes of glaciation have left New England with a rocky, irregular shoreline that reflects the bedrock fabric of the region and the results of differential weathering. Glaciation is also responsible for the highly varied and often isolated sediment sources (Cape Cod being a major exception) that occur along the New England coast. Finally, the thickness and extent of the Laurentide ice sheet, and the timing of deglaciation have produced the widely varied sea-level histories that have influenced different parts of New England.

The New England coast is bordered by deep (Gulf of Maine) to shallow-water (Buzzards Bay) shelf basins that have restricted circulation with the open ocean. Tidal-wave resonance and dampening within these basins have produced macro-tidal to microtidal conditions that have been subject to change over time. The large bays and sounds, the indented nature, and the multitude of shoreline orientations of the New England coast cause a wide range in wave-energy conditions. Thus, the hydrographic regime differs greatly along the New England coast, from the wave-dominated setting of Nantucket Sound to the tide-dominated environment of northeast Maine. In some regions where wave and tidal energy are both low, such as the eastern portion of Buzzards Bay, coastal processes are dominated by infrequent, large-magnitude storms.

Bedrock promontories have partitioned the New England coast, thereby restricting sediment movement. Consequently, most barriers are short (<1km), and frequently are isolated or occur in small groups. Long barrier chains are uncommon. The two that do exist are found near large sand supplies: one has built from a longshore source (the outer Cape Cod barrier system) and the other from an offshore source (the Merrimack Embayment barrier chain). Other major barrier systems in New England are associated with drumlin fields, outwash plains, and riverine sediments located on the inner continental shelf.

Barrier spits have widespread occurrence in New England, due to the irregular coastline configuration and the high number of local onshore sediment sources. In areas where backbarrier tidal prisms are small, barrier spits have closed off bays and often have evolved into landward migrating barrier beaches. Barrier islands are rare in New England.

The composition of the barriers ranges from fine sand to cobble- and boulder-sized material. Sandy barriers comprise more than two thirds of the barrier shoreline, although the shorter mixed-sediment and gravel barriers are the most numerous.

The paucity of sediment along the New England coast, coupled with the long-term (Holocene) relative sea-level rise have produced an environment in which most barriers are transgressive. These barriers are commonly narrow, low in relief, and characterized by washovers and outcrops of backbarrier salt-marsh peat in the intertidal zone. Along mixed-sediment shorelines, transgressive barriers undergo a long-term process whereby sand is lost from the system and gravel becomes concentrated as a lag deposit.

Regressive barriers are associated with large updrift or offshore sand supplies. Barriers of this type have diagnostic ground-penetrating-radar signatures, consisting of wide, seaward-prograding, sigmoidally shaped accretionary wedges. Some regressive barriers exhibit semi-parallel beach ridges. Regressive and vertically building barriers exhibit the most extensive sand dune development in New England.

Most barriers in New England are presently eroding, which has necessitated the construction of numerous seawalls and revetments, particularly in metropolitan areas. During the past 15 years, several large storms (>75-year storms) have repeatedly damaged many structured and unstructured barriers, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of homes, summer cottages, and public works. This can also be said for the rest of the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast. Thus, despite their many differences, the problem for all these coastal regions, brought on by waning sediment supplies, rising sea level, and erosion, are very similar.

Keywords

Shoreline Change Tidal Inlet Beach Ridge Boston Harbor Barrier Beach 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Duncan M. FitzGerald
    • 1
  • Peter S. Rosen
    • 2
  • Sytze van Heteren
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of GeologyBoston UniversityBostonUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeologyNortheastern UniversityBostonUSA

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