Haylee Parsons, the park manager at Reid State Park, stands on the dunes at Griffith’s Head where the boardwalk was washed away in recent storms. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Reid State Park in Georgetown had to close temporarily because a boardwalk leading to the beach was washed out.

Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg was littered with so much debris its shrinking sand dunes were nearly unnavigable.

And at Sand Beach in Acadia National Park, enough sand eroded to reveal the carcass of an old schooner that’s been buried for decades.

From York County to Washington County, Maine’s beaches and coastal parks – a signature element of the state’s appeal – took a beating last week from two major storms that were compounded by astronomically high tides. State officials say it’s too early to tell how well those damaged areas will recover by spring and summer, when they will welcome tens of thousands of visitors, or whether any damage will be long-lasting.

“We’re certainly hoping for a quiet February,” said Andy Cutko, director of Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.

The affected areas are resilient and have bounced back from major storms before, but experts agree that climate change is leading to more extreme weather events – ones marked by stronger winds and more precipitation in shorter periods – that will test that resiliency.


“A lot of our beaches and tidal estuaries are very dynamic systems, but we do need to wonder if these incredibly strong storms are a sign of a tipping point where it becomes harder for them to recover,” Cutko said.

Peter Slovinsky, a marine geologist with Maine Geological Survey, part of the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said it’s not uncommon for a powerful storm to erode 10 or 15 feet of sand dunes. Storms in 2007, 2010 and 2017 come to mind.

An outdoor deck area was destroyed at Spinney’s Restaurant at Fort Popham during the latest storms. Owner Chris Bartlett says he has to fortify a seawall that was built in the late 1970s. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“It usually takes a year or two for beach dunes to recover,” he said. “But having back-to-back hits like we saw last week; they might need longer.”

The Jan. 10 storm brought what at the time was the third-highest tide recorded in Portland in more than 100 years. The two highest were in 1978. That same Jan. 10 storm caused the highest tide ever recorded in Bar Harbor. That record would last just three days until Jan. 13, when it was eclipsed during a second storm that also set a record in Portland.

High tides are a combination of the tide levels themselves, which are tied to the moon’s gravity, coupled with storm surge, which is created by weather patterns.

Slovinsky said because Maine’s sea level has been rising, last week’s storms were more pronounced. He compared it to a bathtub. If it’s only half full, it would take a bit of effort to splash water out of it. But if it’s three-quarters full, it’s much easier.


When that water reaches areas not used to handling it, the damage can be catastrophic.

Cutko said a co-worker at the Bureau of Parks and Land who lives in Georgetown and managed Reid State Park for years, was emotional at work this week.


“She said she’s never seen anything like that in terms of loss of dunes,” he said.

At Spinney’s Restaurant, located near the entrance of Fort Popham, owner Chris Bartlett said he had to fortify a seawall that had been built in the late 1970s. Bartlett has only owned the restaurant for two years, but he grew up in Maine and spent many summer days at Popham Beach.

He said the restaurant has been an “anchor” for generations.


“I hope that it can be that for the community for many more years to come,” Bartlett said, adding that he and his fiancee, Maggie Caldwell, plan to host their wedding onsite this year.

Few coastal areas were spared last week. Short Sands Beach in York; Middle Beach in Kennebunk; Willard Beach in South Portland, which suffered dune erosion in addition to losing its historic fishing shacks; Crescent Beach and Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth; and as far down east as Roque Bluffs State Park in Washington County.

Debris from Saturday’s storm litters Popham Beach State Park. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

Ryan Malagara, who owns an aerial and ground photography and videography business in Machias, has been taking drone footage of storm damage in Washington County.

“It’s certainly much greater than what you’d usually see,” said Malagara, who has lived in the area for 18 years.

At Jasper Beach in Machiasport, he said the storm surge leveled the pile of natural polished rocks the beach is known for. At Sandy River Beach in Jonesport, he shot insurance footage for a client there who had never been threatened by coastal flooding before.

“I think people are starting to see this as a more serious issue and one that’s not going to stop,” he said.


During the first storm last week, the hull of an old schooner was uncovered at Sand Beach, one of the most popular areas on the eastern side of Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor. When the second storm passed through, some of the ship’s remains were dragged out into the water, while others were damaged by large stones that were displaced.

Acadia spokesperson Amanda Pollock said the hope is that the erosion at Sand Beach won’t be a long-term concern, but she said damage from the two storms was widespread throughout the park.

“We’re still working to fully assess the damage; that will likely take several days,” Pollock said. “I think that it’s fair to say this is an unprecedented major incident, but we’re starting to think that this might be our new normal.”

State and local officials have been planning for environmental changes to the coastline for years, and those efforts have ramped up since the state released its climate action plan, Maine Won’t Wait.

Slovinsky said there are only so many options.



The first, he said, is avoid, which means halting any new infrastructure in at-risk places. Another option is to adapt, or to take existing infrastructure and make it more resilient. That means elevating roads and raising buildings.

A third option is to protect vulnerable areas, which involves tactics like rebuilding seawalls. Recently, the state has started using old Christmas trees to help rebuild the dunes at Popham, a technique that has been used successfully in other coastal states. Trees are placed in rows to trap windblown sand and create multiple dune ridges. Over time, those ridges stabilize as dune grass grows, trapping more sand.

The last option, Slovinsky said, is the one nobody wants to talk about: retreat.

Damaged steps from last week’s storm seen walking east from Popham State Park. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

“Maybe it doesn’t make sense to keep rebuilding or adapting in some places,” he said. “If you think historically, humanity has retreated from the coast many times as sea levels have changed.”

“In a way, these storms are a wake-up call. Already, we as a state understand that a lot of our coastal communities are vulnerable. We need to re-envision what our coastline looks like. There is nothing telling us that the sea level is going to fall.”

Cutko said many coastal state parks are still assessing damage and figuring out what can be rebuilt ahead of the summer season. Volunteers may be needed.


“Mainers are generous people and a lot of people have reached out to say ‘What can I do to help?’ ” he said. “So, we’re looking at ways to communicate in the days and weeks ahead.”

A short-term likelihood, Slovinsky said, is that Maine’s beaches might be smaller this year.

“If the beach has lowered, the tide is going to reach up higher. That means less dry beach for people to enjoy.”

In the long term, though, Cutko said, communities will need to have difficult conversation.

“We need to consider: How can we manage landscapes while protecting their habitats and recreational values – all the reasons why people love these places.”

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