New Jersey’s East Point Lighthouse has been lighting up Delaware Bay for the better part of two centuries. But those same waters that the lighthouse helped illuminate might bring about its destruction.
During normal conditions, the bay is about 40 yards from the lighthouse. And during storms, the surf pounds against an earthen wall just 10 yards from its front steps.
“This lighthouse is in incredible danger; it’s getting worse and worse and worse,” said Nancy Patterson, president of the Maurice River Historical Society. “The water is right there, often within feet of the lighthouse.”
It’s a threat affecting lighthouses across the country, including those in low-lying areas as well as those on bluffs or cliffs being eroded by storms and rising sea levels.
“It’s happening faster than anybody had predicted,” said Jeff Gales, executive director of the U.S. Lighthouse Society in Hansville, Washington.
Globally, sea levels have been rising over the past century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the rate has increased in recent decades. In New Jersey, seas have risen by 1.3 feet over the past 100 years, said Benjamin Horton, a Rutgers University professor and leading expert on climate change and sea level rise. That is a faster pace than for the past 2,000 years combined, he said.
Horton and other Rutgers researchers project that by 2050, seas off New Jersey will rise an additional 1.4 feet. Rising seas have forced the relocation of several lighthouses. In 1999, the National Park Service moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton, North Carolina, 2,900 feet inland, at a cost of $11.8 million. More recently Cape San Blas Lighthouse in Florida and Gay Head Lighthouse in Massachusetts also were relocated.
But East Point Lighthouse is on the highest spit of land around, which is only a few inches above sea level, so moving it is not an option. Nor is constantly dumping and plowing more sand in front of it.
Patterson wants some sort of bulkhead or barrier built between the bay and the lighthouse to blunt the force of the waves. She recently led a save-the-lighthouse rally to call attention to its plight and push the state Department of Environmental Protection to do something to save it.
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the department, admits that the lighthouse has been “very vulnerable to storms due to erosion” for years. And he realizes the sandbags the state and local governments keep plopping on the shoreline are just temporary.
But while saying the state is interested in saving the lighthouse, Hajna notes that moving or protecting it with rock-filled cages could cost several million dollars.
Patterson says a barrier needs to be built immediately.
“This history matters,” she said. “We need to do something — now — while there’s still something to save.”