Cape Cod's Nature Place

The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History

The Cape Takes Shape

Cape Cod’s constant is change. Visitors will see dramatic coastal erosion in recent years, and maps showing how the Cape looked 10,000 years ago along with projections to 8,000 years from now.

The shape of Cape Cod is the direct result of the various movements of the Laurentide ice sheet that occurred over 10,000 years ago as well as the constant land erosion happening today. The Museum addresses not only the past but the damage of recent storms and how they effect changes to the Cape's landscape after current severe storm conditions.

Approximately 24,000 years ago the glaciers and ice sheets that covered North America during the most recent Ice Age began to retreat because of climate change. What remained were piles of rock, gravel, clay, large blocks of ice and sandy areas that had been scraped by the bulldozer-effect of the moving glacier. All of this formed a moraine that became the "spine" of Cape Cod around which the peninsula was formed. When the blocks of ice melted they created kettle ponds (365 of them!) and the sand became sandy beaches. As more ice melted the sea level rose and the outline of the Cape as we now know it began to appear.

The Cape Cod peninsula is a dynamic and fragile area that is constantly being reshaped by water and wind. Living by the sea has very real consequences as a result of these changes. For example, Billingsgate Island off Wellfleet was a viable community in the 18th century. By the late 1930s or early '40s the island suffered massive erosion and all that remains island bar exposed at low tide and littered with large granite blocks and bricks.

Ironically, the same destructive forces that violently move the sand from one area to another also work to create the beautiful beaches that draw vacationers to Cape Cod from across the world.