Let's Go Flying!

Documenting coastal erosion from the sky

January 1, 2010

When Karl Swenson combined his interests in flying, photography, and community service, little did he know it would benefit the threatened barrier beach ecosystem, which provides an important shield to the coastal community of Chatham, Massachusetts.

Chatham is unique in Massachusetts as there are approximately 70 miles of coastline, which borders on both the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound. In addition, it is one of two communities that has within its town limits a barrier beach system.

A recent break caused by an unusual coastal storm severely damaged structures that had survived for decades and had been part of the community. The same storm caused significant erosion and became a front-page local news story, with cabin foundations eroding away and having to be torn down or moved.

Swenson provided up-to-date detailed photographs of the before and post storm damage.

“A wealth of information can be gathered through aerial photography,” said John Geiger of the Chatham Conservation Commission, a regulatory board that administers the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act as well as the local Chatham Wetland Bylaw. The commission issues required permits for any activity within 100 feet of coastal and inland wetlands as well as within 200 feet of the boundaries of a river.

“This is where Karl and his airplane have become invaluable. His photos give the commissioners that bird’s-eye view, which allows for an additional level of evaluation impossible to perceive from ground observations. They offer the commissioners comparative views of wetlands in relation to the topography around them,” said Geiger, adding, “Sometimes the relationship between a wetlands resource and its surrounding topography is only completely understood when viewed as a system, which is best accomplished through aerial photography.”

One of four directors of the nonprofit South Shore Flying Club, Swenson started this project for several reasons. “When I was flying in 2005, I could see differences between the published charts and what was the coastline. I do it now to have a purpose other than flying for a quick meal or boring holes in the sky,” he said. Swenson is a senior engineering manager with the Shaw Power Group Fossil & Renewables Division in Stoughton, Massachusetts. “I have a photography hobby that is noncommercial in nature. I believe the coastline is interesting from a historical purpose as it is geographically very dynamic. Coastal erosion is a large and potentially growing problem and I hope these data points can be used in studies.”

Swenson continues to fly the coastline simply because he got hooked and it was a way he wanted to spread goodwill for general aviation that he could also have some fun with.

“The changes to what I anticipated would take place over decades are visibly changing over a period of weeks,” he said. “And being a small town, resources are not always available for continuous monitoring. My interest in town government led me to assist the conservation committee in the town to understand what was going on. Because I was a private pilot and could not sell any of these, I wanted to make sure it could get into proper researchers’ hands that were studying the problem.”

Swenson’s work has touched a lot of people, but primarily the ones most affected. “I have been able to provide information to local government officials that could not afford it normally, it interests me, and I’ve made a few friends from it. It gives me a good excuse to go flying and practice my love of flying, photography, and the New England Coast.”