What is a Lighthouse?

Photo by Chirs Costello – MassLive

This blog post has everything. It is, quite literally, a cliff-hanger. It has the salty smell of the sea.  Crashing waves.   Churning, swirling sea foam.  Poets. Rolling lighthouses. Millions of dollars. Controversy. Collaboration. History. Did we mention rolling lighthouses? Climate change. Project management. Sustainability.


Read on.

People often get poetic about lighthouses.

Henry Wadwsorth Longfellow wrote a poem called The Lighthouse. In it, he writes:

Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!

But as Longfellow claims, is the lighthouse truly immovable?

Should the lighthouse be immovable?

Turns out – if it is truly immovable, it may fall into the sea, because climate change and sea level rise (or if you deny this – the effects of erosion) have caused one of the most famous lighthouses, the one on Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, to be moved.

So – why are we talking about lighthouses in a blog dedicated to project management and sustainability?

Think about it. What is a lighthouse? For sailors, it’s a risk trigger. Remember risk triggers? They’re anything that make you think that a threat (usually a threat, we suppose it could be an opportunity) is about to happen or has already happened. Smoke is a risk trigger for fire. A “heat” indicator on a stove-top is a risk trigger for a burn that you will NOT get because it reminds you that the surface is hot.

Indian cricketer and Member of Parliament, Navjot Singh Sidhu says, “A fallen lighthouse is more dangerous than a reef”.  In this case, the loss of the lighthouse would not only be a danger in terms of the loss of its all-important beacon, but because a lovely piece of history would be forever erased. That was a risk that the stakeholders in this story were not willing to take.

Whether or not the cause for the erosion is climate change is a bit controversial. However, for your consideration we include this extract from a recent post from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

The coast of Martha’s Vineyard, with its exposed bluffs, barrier beaches and ponds has always been in a dynamic relationship with the sea, but the changes that human-driven climate change are bringing have no parallel in the recent past. Global average sea level has risen about 8 inches between 1880 and 2009, while the rate of increase has markedly increased, especially since 1993, and is still accelerating. Due to a variety of local factors, the stretch of the East coast of the United States from Cape Hatteras in North Carolina up to Maine has some of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the world.
In addition to sea level rise, the Northeast has experienced a greater increase in extreme precipitation since 1958 than any other region of the country, with more than a 70% increase in rainfall during the heaviest events. The National Climate Assessment also recently concluded that there is a growing risk of stronger storms in the Northeast. All of these changes are contributing to the rate at which the Gay Head Cliffs are eroding. The combination of sea level rise and storms can be particularly lethal, bringing higher waves and more wave energy crashing against the shore.

The post makes convincing arguments. But whatever the cause, there is still an intersection here of sustainability and project management; the idea is to sustain the lighthouse and the way to do it is with a unique, time-and-resource-limited endeavor with a well-defined outcome. Certainly, without any controversy, we can agree that this is a project. It’s a project that involved the collaboration of many stakeholders, and it’s an interesting one. Using an odd combination of ancient techniques going back to the Egyptians as well as new technology, the team was able to lift and roll the 400-ton Gay Head Light 135 feet inland from where it stood for 150 years and safely away from the threat of eroding cliffs.  We suggest you read through the front-page story of the Cape Cod Times and have a look at their “On The Brink” graphic (below), and a video clip we also include which shows how the move was accomplished.


Take the lighthouse metaphor here to heart. There is an intersection of project management and sustainability. At a minimum, the area of risk management and understanding threats (and opportunities) is loaded with triggers from climate change and sea-level rise. We ask that as you sail through your projects, that you be ever vigilant for the risk triggers of ‘sustainabilty risk’ by calling forth the words of Longfellow:

Not one alone; from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean’s verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o’er the restless surge.

Here’s a whole list of poems just about lighthouses!