Mathews County’s shoreline is losing an average of about half a foot of land every year.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot but if you think about it every 10 years you are losing five feet of land,” said Craig Rose, an archaeologist with Longwood University’s Institute of Archaeology.
Some spots have lost drastically more – a rate of 42 feet per year in the last 80 years — but Rose said those are extreme cases near New Point Comfort Lighthouse and the southern tip of Gwynn’s Island.
The erosion is threatening previously identified archaeological sites up and down the county’s eastern coastline along the Chesapeake Bay.
Researchers from the Longwood institute have spent weeks visiting these sites – assessing their condition, looking for artifacts and mapping the current shoreline. The data will be used to determine the rate of shoreline erosion or growth and update records housed at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
According to Brian Bates, the institute’s executive director, the state will be able to use the information to prioritize funding for sites affected by natural disasters, including storms or flooding. It will help the historic resources department assess how to divide limited resources that become available to fund cleanup and restoration projects after events like hurricanes.
“That is powerful information for them,” Bates said.
The project is being funded through a grant from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Assistance program administered for the National Park Service by the historic resources department. The grant totals $66,000 for work in both Mathews and Middlesex counties.
According to Rose, the research team used a software program called AMBUR (Analyzing Moving Boundaries Using R statistical package) that measures shoreline change to identify 64 threatened sites in Mathews. Of those, he said, 19 were found to be completely submerged.
The team was granted access by land owners to 21 of the remaining 45 properties, extending from the northern tip of Gwynn’s Island at Cherry Point to the New Point Comfort Lighthouse.
The properties are accessed by a boat carrying several staff members who walk the beach and photograph any artifacts they found.
“I really didn’t think we would find anything. Usually just looking for items on the surface doesn’t reveal anything,” Rose said. “We found artifacts just lying on the beach. It was interesting but a pretty good indicator that the sites are eroding when you find stuff clearly visible on the beach.”
A variety of items were found from multiple time periods: prehistoric ceramics, stone tools, nails, glass and brick fragments. Nothing was removed, Rose said. When the project is complete, the property owners will receive letters describing what was found.
To calculate the shoreline’s rate of erosion, they used aerial photos taken in 1937, 1994 and 2013. During the spring semester, Bates said, students traced the visible shorelines in each set of photos for comparison.
Is Mathews unique?
The Longwood institute is doing the same survey in Middlesex, Lancaster and Northumberland counties. Out of the four, Rose said, “Mathews is definitely the most threatened.”
Jutting out into the Chesapeake Bay, Mathews is vulnerable to a high level of wind, water and weather.
“Day-to-day wave action is having as much, if not a greater effect than storms, but storms often get the most attention,” Bates said.
Researchers have also forecasted potential sea level rise and sinking land for the county.
“Mathews is a fairly low-lying county,” Bates said. “A foot of sea level change makes a big difference on what is under water.”
The Mathews shoreline ease into the bay. There are no deep drop-offs at the shore, only a gradual progression, Rose said. It does make for shallow beaches that visitors and residents enjoy.
In comparison, in Middlesex parts of the river are 20 to 30 feet deep not far from the shoreline, Rose said. The leads to easier water flow in Mathews farther inland and a higher potential for flooding.
There is also less “armor” around Mathews, Bates said – less rip-rap or bulkheads at the coastline. It’s all pretty undeveloped, which leaves properties open to a slow and steady erosion.
Saltwater floods the inland portions of the property repeatedly, killing trees, removing vegetation and eroding the land a little at a time.
Rose’s team walked several beaches holding the remnants of what was probably forest at one time – roots and stumps of driftwood protruding from sandy shores.
“The interesting thing is being able to see with your own eyes how erosion is affecting the land and these archaeological sites,” Rose said. “You hear about it – global warming and sea level rise – but it’s fascinating to see it. To see the changes that older residents talk about.”
There were a few areas of the county that, based on the maps, had gained some land since 1937, including the old Islander hotel site on Gwynn’s Island and a section about midway down the eastern coastline of the county near Winter Harbor Haven. Some of that accretion, Rose said, could be man made through development or land management. It may not be from land leaving one place and washing up in another.
While Longwood researchers have been assessing the erosion of land, the Fairfield Foundation is examining the county’s threat to historic structures.
The architectural assessment focuses on buildings that are built before 1966 and located in flood prone areas, according to the foundation’s co-founder David Brown.
The survey, being performed simultaneously with the erosion project, is being funded by another grant from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Assistance program totaling $84,000. It includes 300 structures.
Brown said his team researches the basic architectural information of each site and evaluates its historical significance. They spend time assessing each site’s current condition to compare the information to what is already known.
The project is designed to increase the Department of History Resources’ inventory. In the case of a disaster, Brown said, the department would know the previous condition of the building and, based on its assessment, whether it should be funded for restoration. It speeds up the process for property owners, Brown said.
“Mathews County is not running out of water. It’s sinking,” Brown said. “The problem is not going away.”
“It’s a beautiful and amazing community,” he added. “For a long time under-surveyed, Mathews has a fascinating history. People in Mathews know it, but people outside the county are called on to make the decisions so they need to know what the people of Mathews already know — and that’s part of our job.”
The Fairfield Foundation has assessed 100 structures and should complete 50 more before September. Brown said the entire assessment should be complete by spring of 2017.
Longwood’s team has finished its survey in Mathews and is moving on to the other three counties. The team will file a report with Department of Historic Resources indicating the level of threat for each site and how many years it will take until the archaeological sites are consumed by water.
“I think there is an urgency,” Bates said. “There is a growing consensus around archaeology … site loss around the bay. Everyone or nearly everyone is losing some. Whether its a little or a lot, we need to know how erosive our shores are and what we can do about it.”