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Evidence of winter's wrath is hard to miss across Fire Island

Power pipes became exposed over the winter months

Power pipes became exposed over the winter months due to the ice and snow which is seen here at Talisman beach on Fire Island, April 16, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz

Winter waves, ice and wind took a toll on parts of Fire Island this year, scraping away beaches, upending docks and exposing utility cables along the bayside shoreline.

A boardwalk at Sunken Forest that had been moved back a few years ago because of erosion is again on the side of a small bluff, sand has overtaken walkways and some beaches will appear narrower to beachgoers.

"It was, by far, the most epic winter I've ever seen," said Ken Stein, president of both Sayville Ferry Service and Fire Island Concessions. "I've never seen the amount of damage to Fire Island that we experienced."

Scientists and Seashore officials said that while this winter's ice was particularly problematic, erosion is typical in the life cycle of a barrier island, but also uneven. And each year, the Fire Island National Seashore responds, by letting sand cover boardwalks, removing docks or altering trails.

"Every winter we're retreating more and more in the area," Fire Island National Seashore Facilities manager James Dunphy said.

In some places, beach erosion is evident, and in others across the 32 miles of barrier island from Democrat Point on the west to Moriches Inlet on the east, the shore has expanded.

"The message for everyone is that this is a dynamic place," Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent Chris Soller said. "Change is occurring. We have done a lot of things on Fire Island to make it a place to enjoy but . . . it's not permanent and the dynamic nature of Fire Island means that things are changing all the time."

At Talisman/Barrett Beach, old electric lines poke out of the sand and white telecommunications piping is exposed. Seashore officials initially thought they may have to limit access or close the beach, but work to bury the lines or remove them is ongoing and they said the popular spot will be open this season.

The scene is similar in other spots along the barrier island. "The wind and the waves tend to eat away at the shoreline," Dunphy said.

Farther to the west at Sailors Haven Visitor Center, ice formations pulled pilings out of the ground and upended a portion of dock so severely it looks like a stairway to the sky.

Erosion has also uncovered spots of broken glass, old tires, pieces of boats and scraps from old bulkheads or docks.

"Back in the old days, where was the dump?" Dunphy said. "The dump was on the island. Things get exposed over time."

The impact is not uniform.

"It's a very dramatic shifting environment," said Jay Tanski, a coastal processes and facilities specialist with New York Sea Grant.

"You do have some areas where you have what is known as spot erosion. You have other areas that are adjacent to that accumulate sand. It's not one thing happening."

The beach from Kismet to Saltaire is wider than most locals have seen in years, said Suzy Goldhirsch, president of the Fire Island Association and a Seaview resident.

"The sand comes and the sand goes," Goldhirsch said. "We're living on a sandbar in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and it's high risk."

Farther east, on the west side of the breach cut by superstorm Sandy near Old Inlet, erosion between last summer and January has increased along a roughly 2,000-foot area, according to a report from Dr. Charles Flagg, a research professor with the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.

But the breach did not grow as much this year thanks to fewer nor'easters with damaging winds. "We had a lot less erosion this winter than last," Flagg said. "It was cold and snowy and unpleasant but it wasn't very windy."

Seashore officials are mindful of the future.

"Damage resulting from this winter may foreshadow things to come," Soller said. "We can't make decisions based on a single winter's damage. Trends that emerge over the course of several years will be used to make future decisions regarding facilities and infrastructure."

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