Her Geography Lessons Begin on Napatree Point

Erosion is a natural occurrence at Napatree Point, a sandbar in Westerly, R.I., whose shoreline is worked upon daily by ocean waves. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Erosion is a natural occurrence at Napatree Point, a sandbar in Westerly, R.I., whose shoreline is worked upon daily by ocean waves. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Rhode Island College professor uses this sandy location in Westerly to teach students about coastal erosion

By ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The study of geography isn’t about memorizing the names of states, capitals and continents, according to Rhode Island College adjunct professor of geography Jennifer Bonin. She says it’s a field of science dedicated to the study of everything on and in the earth.

“Geography is the history of the planet,” Bonin says.

For five summers, Bonin has taught a course on coastal geography, providing students with the history of Rhode Island’s coastal regions. Her first class is held at Napatree Point in Westerly. Located at the end of a mile-and-a-half-long stretch of beach, not even the locals tend to venture out that far.

At 9:30 a.m., a van drops Bonin and her six students off in the touristy center of town. They quickly leave behind the teeming throngs, climb a steep dune and head down to the other side toward the beach.

There, the sand is strewn with seaweed, crinkled and blackened like discarded film. Skeletal remains of sea creatures also litter the beach. Here, a crab claw like broken pliers; there, a cracked shell, the flesh eaten away from the inside. It is a graveyard scattered with the remains of the once was.

Rhode Island College adjunct professor of geography Jennifer Bonin, second from left, with students during a recent trip to Napatree Point in Westerly, R.I. (RIC)

Rhode Island College adjunct professor of geography Jennifer Bonin, second from left, with students during a recent trip to Napatree Point in Westerly, R.I. (RIC)

After a half-hour walk, Bonin and her students arrive at Napatree Point. They settle down on the rocks and Bonin begins her 45-minute lecture on coastal geography and glacial processes, including how the rocks they sit upon came to be there.

“Geologists call them drop stones,” she says. “They are left by glaciers. As glaciers move forward, they drag with them deposits, which they drop on the coastline.”

She likens glaciers to a snowplow. “When a snowplow pushes snow in a lot, it also takes with it sand, rocks and other debris, then piles it all into a corner,” she says. “When the snow melts, the sand, rock and other debris are left behind. The deposits didn’t originate there. They were dragged from far distances by the plow and dropped there. In the same way, all of these rocks you see on the coastline originated much farther north of here.”

Erosion is a natural occurrence at Napatree Point because it’s a sandbar composed of more sand than soil and its shoreline is worked upon daily by ocean waves.

“The coastline used to extend much further offshore,” Bonin says, “but the waves have steadily cut away at it year after year. In geologic time, this entire coastline will eventually disappear.”

She then points behind her to a 12-foot ledge that looks as if a big chunk of land had been bitten from it. “Now the source of the erosion happening here is inland,”  Bonin says. “The ocean no longer reaches this point. But when it rains the inland runoff eats away at the ledge.”

It’s now midday and the sun is high. Waves rush forward in foaming surf, lapping at the rocks. Bonin gazes out over the ocean where fishing boats move across the glass-like surface.

“The land changes every day,” Bonin says. “You may not notice the changes right away, but when you come down to Napatree Point and see the erosion and see the coastline where houses once stood, you begin to understand how much geography is tied into history.”