Rebuild or retreat? Newport looks to Cliff Walk’s eroding future

Newport, Rhode Island, is in a bind: should the city continue to shore up its distinctive cliff walk, even as portions of the path keep crumbling into the sea?

Last week, coastal erosion knocked out 30 feet (9 meters) of the cobbled path that meanders alongside Gilded Age mansions high above the rocky coastline for about 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers). The breathtaking views have made it one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions and a central part of Newport’s identity.

City Manager Joe Nicholson and Public Services Director Bill Riccio gazed at the collapsed section of trail where a chain link fence still dangles in space, and debated whether to rebuild or pull out.

That’s a question they anticipated at Newport earlier. Superstorm Sandy washed out parts of the Cliff Walk in 2012 and they were repaired.

Nicholson says he wants to rebuild and enlists the help of the Rhode Island governor and congressional delegation. Like many locals, he has walked the path countless times.

“It’s something that’s in Newport’s DNA,” Nicholson said.

He and Riccio have no idea how long a repair might take or how much it might cost. It won’t be ready in time for the summer tourism season. Engineers were on site Tuesday and took the first steps to assess the site.

Riccio said freeze-thaw cycles and layers of mud within the cliff’s shale strata may have contributed to the collapse.

But scientists say climate change may have created the underlying conditions for last week’s dramatic coastal erosion.

That’s because more frequent, more intense storms can combine with sea-level rise to increase the risk of erosion and set the stage for a collapse-inducing weather event, said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

The first step is to restore and build coastal defenses, but ultimately we will be forced into a controlled retreat, he added.

“We are now seeing the devastating effects of climate change in real time,” Mann said via email.

Sea levels on America’s coast will rise at the fastest rate in the next 30 years than in the entire 20th century, a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and six other federal agencies warned in February.

Relative sea level in Newport has risen about 15 centimeters over the past 50 years and is expected to rise another 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 centimeters) over the next 30 years, NOAA said.

A great attraction of the Cliff Walk is – as the name suggests – that it runs along cliffs. It’s not a sidewalk next to a quiet pond. Below is surf and a choppy ocean.

“We humans like to build permanent infrastructure on the coast, especially nice cliff walks around villas to take in the views,” said Jeffrey Donnelly, an expert in coastal geology at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“There’s always this tension between where we want to put things and the dynamic shoreline,” Donnelly said. That means the city of Newport should expect constant repairs to keep the trail where it is.

John Torgan, director of The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island, reckons cliff erosion will pose a growing challenge to the state’s coastline.

“I think The Nature Conservancy would generally favor a retreat, which means not trying to stop it, but looking at ways to go inland and make it more environmentally friendly,” Tororgan said. “It’s super challenging and impractical in places – but over time you realize you can’t stop the ocean.”

Nicholson, the city manager, said he couldn’t predict the weather, hurricanes, or the disturbances caused by Mother Nature. And the fact that the catwalk may be damaged again is not enough of a deterrent. A 2018 study estimates that more than 1.3 million people visit each year. Nicholson believes that number is higher now as people seek outdoor activities during the pandemic.

“It’s been hit by significant storms and significant events before, and it’s always bounced back because it’s so iconic,” he said. “We will fight back.”

After Superstorm Sandy, repairing damage to Cliff Walk and building retaining walls cost about $5 million, mostly from federal funds. Some walkways were washed out or collapsed, while in other areas huge boulders were being moved by the violent surf.

The Newport Historical Society has said that there has certainly been a coastal walk along the cliffs for hundreds of years, although no one knows for sure.

The section that collapsed this month is adjacent to private property – the last original clapboard-style summer home on the Cliff Walk – so the path there can’t be moved inland anyway.

Visitors take an approximately four-minute detour on local roads to avoid the 137-meter route.

“This is wild,” said Rachel Ricci, 21, of Millville, New Jersey, upon viewing the eroding shoreline on Tuesday. Ricci was visiting with a friend on vacation. “I understand why it’s closed now.”

John Greichen Jr. lives about a mile away and says friends from out of town always like to visit the trail.

“Everyone knows when they come to Newport,” he said, “they have to do the cliff walk.” Rebuild or retreat? Newport looks to Cliff Walk’s eroding future

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