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Guidebook Cape Cod ~ Geography



Geographical Description: Cape Cod is situated at the extreme southeast corner of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 41:39:10° North latitude and 70:17:45° West longitude. The Cape is approximately 70 miles from Canal to Provincetown’s Race Point and is fishhook-shaped, running, more or less, southwest to northeast to Orleans, and, from thence, roughly north to Provincetown at the Cape’s terminus. The Cape is from 1 to 20 miles wide, at its widest point and is completely surrounded by water: Cape Cod Bay on the north, Buzzards Bay on the west, Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds on the south and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. Cape Cod projects out into the ocean in an east-west direction for approximately 35 miles, then becomes narrower and turns northward.

Landmass area: 399 square miles; coastline: 559.6 miles. During Earth’s last Ice Age, about 22,000 years ago, the mile-plus-high Laurentide ice sheet spread down from Labrador to cover all of what is now New England, eventually reaching as far west as the Great Lakes. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are the residue of eroded, submerged glacial terminal moraines—ridges of heterogeneous terra firma and rocks which were pushed along by glaciers. As the glaciers approached and advanced into lower New England, the warmer waters melted glacial ice. The glaciers retreated northward, depositing a high-ridged rocky spine—a rocky glacial terminal moraine—in their wakes on the Cape’s northern side. The flat outwash plains of the southern Cape were formed by this glacial retreat’s scouring effect as it released the land from its icy grip. When the Ice Age ended about 9,000 years ago, the sea rose 400 feet, flooding lands surrounding the upstanding morainic debris; the dry land became Cape Cod. The hills along northern portions of the Cape comprise debris pushed along—then subsequently deserted by—the last Ice Age glaciers. Ice, however, did not melt evenly and, as the ice sheet receded, tremendous blocks of ice (some as much as a mile wide) became stranded and, as they eventually melted, left depressions in the earth. Some remained depressions, but others filled with fresh water to become fresh water ponds, while others connected to the ocean, became salt ponds. Doane Rock, just off the road which leads from Salt Pond Visitor Center to Coast Guard Beach, is the largest glacial boulder on Cape Cod. As millennia marched on, erosion acted on stone and terra firma, creating soil which became home to seeds borne by winds and avians. Seeds took root and flourished. But drill down a mere 500 feet on the Upper Cape to find the granite bedrock which underpins all of the Cape’s New England neighbors.

Geographically, Cape Cod is a peninsula. It is, however, really closer to being an island, as it is surrounded by water. Originally, the Cape was united with the mainland until the US Army Corps of Engineers—realizing a three-century-old dream—dug the 17½-mile long, 480-foot wide Cape Cod Canal from 1909 to 1914 (the world’s widest sea-level canal), giving “birth” to Cape Cod as an independent land mass and joining Buzzards and Cape Cod Bays. Today, reminders of those behemoth glaciers are found strewn across this land in the mid-Cape’s stone walls, the upper Cape’s boulders and hundreds of kettle ponds and glacial lakes from the Canal to Provincetown. Wind and sea have also played more than a nominal role in shaping this peninsula, too. Marine erosion gave birth to the Outer Cape’s tall cliffs. The ‘Chatham Break,’ resulting from 1991’s Hurricane Bob, forever changed the shore and harbor of this pristine Cape village. Ocean currents carried sand to create the Province Lands in Provincetown. The Cape is a dynamic place—shifting sands, wind and the ocean work their sometimes nefarious magic to continually change the face of Cape Cod. Almost five thousand years ago, the rugged eastern and southern shores extended two miles further into the ocean than they do today. Gradually, wind and waves smoothed the ocean-facing coast. Scientists tell us that Cape Cod loses three feet of Atlantic coast annually (nearly five acres). Much of this eroded sand and rock (about two acres’ worth)—is deposited further north on the outer Cape in stages—sandbar, sand spit and land—to form an ever-lengthening beach. Nauset Beach and Nauset Spit (Eastham) and North Beach (Chatham) are all sand spits. In Wellfleet, Billingsgate Island, once domicile to dozens of families, is today merely a sandbar. Water and wind are ever removing land from one Cape location and depositing new land in another, however, the Cape sustains a net land loss of two acres every year. Conservation efforts, such as planting beach grass on bare dunes, have helped make these sandy mountains resistant to winter storms. But these grasses have but a fragile hold in the sand, and only by prohibiting foot and other traffic can these dunes—and the dry land they call home—survive.

Cape Cod Area Guides: Previous Page ] Climate ] Arts and Culture ] [ Geography ] Golfing ] History ] Trivia ] Barnstable ] Bourne ] Brewster ] Chatham ] Dennis ] Eastham ] Falmouth ] Harwich ] Mashpee ] Orleans ] Provincetown ] Sandwich ] Truro ] Wellfleet ] Yarmouth ]

Information and photos submitted by:

Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce
Routes 6 & 132, PO Box 790
Hyannis, MA  02601
508-362-3225 | Website | Email


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