Mapping and Monitoring

Cape Cod: Land Cover and Ecology

Woods Hole Research Center scientists study the environment of Cape Cod not only because it has a combination of ecosystems unique in New England but also because it has changed rapidly - more rapidly than any other region in New England. Moreover, as ecologists, the Center’s scientists must be good stewards of local resources, as well as global ones, if the Center’s research and outreach are to ring true.

Natural changes in this area are vigorous and continuous as all of Cape Cod is sand - there is no surface bedrock - and the forces of the oceans and winds are constant. Human-caused changes to water quality and the environment have accelerated as undeveloped land becomes scarce even as the pace of home building and population growth slackens. The Cape has changed from a farming and fishing economy with seasonal visitors to a larger year-round population that builds bigger and more homes in what remains of open space. Sprawl is here, fueled by demographic forces, weaknesses in zoning, a lack of vision, and America’s love of the automobile.

The remaining privately held and undeveloped lands of Cape Cod are becoming more precious. They are sought not only for development but also by land trusts and by towns interested in building the infrastructure needed for larger populations in pursuit of dwindling resources of clean water.

A poster and map titled Losing Cape Cod, published in 1999, covered the extraordinary period of change from 1951 to 1990 when divided highways made their first appearance on the Cape and major housing booms occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. This era also saw the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore and creation of at least 19 local land trusts. Woods Hole Research Center staff, led by Thomas Stone, have now updated the earlier maps with new data from MassGIS (Massachusetts Office of Geographic Information) that brings the story up to 2005. To view the new maps, please click on the Losing Cape Cod icon at right.

Although significant progress has been made in developing an awareness of the losses of open space, Cape Codders are still grappling with the effects of a population that has grown by 400 percent since 1950. Those challenges are not only about septage and air and water quality, but also now need to consider new threats from climate change, accompanying and accelerating sea level rise, and likely increased storminess.

The maps below have many colors to show different land cover types, but the most important are dark greens for forests, yellow for residential, red for commercial and industrial areas, black for transportation, light brown for salt marshes and pale brown for sand and, of course, various blues for fresh and salt waters. Orange, significant only in 1951, are agricultural areas, now largely lost.

Drag the slider to see the differences between 1951 and 2005. If you are viewing this on a mobile device or have javascript disabled, you can see the full images by clicking on the links below the image.