The last inhabited island on the Virginia side of the Chesapeake Bay covers barely 740 acres of marsh and sand, 1/3 of the area it had when it was first mapped in the 1850s. Tangier suffers from the dual onslaught of erosion and sea level rise. In a good year, the island loses 7 to 9 acres of land, while the westernmost beach recedes 4 meters, exposing homes, gardens, and even graves to the Chesapeake’s unrelenting waves. The town, situated on three sandy ridges, rises to a high point just 1.2 meters above sea level. As salt water incursion and erosion deplete trees and other vegetation, erosion will increase. With a conservative projection of mean sea level rise of 4.4 millimeters per year for the southern Chesapeake Bay, the highest point in town, if it manages to stave off the inexorable erosion, would be completely underwater in 270 years. Tangier will be uninhabitable centuries before that.
Crab shacks in the main harbor. Photo by author.
The Chesapeake Bay and mid-Atlantic coastlines are hot spots for climate change, expecting greater than average sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms. Though the residents of the conservative community on tangier are skeptical, the evidence for human-induced climate change’s impact on the island and the effect of sea level rise is undeniable. Intensifying storms and more dramatic temperature shifts have and will continue to exacerbate erosion. Many residents believe that, had Hurricane Sandy made landfall over the Chesapeake Bay, rather than further north, Tangier would already be largely abandoned. Even the glancing blow from Sandy left significant damage in its wake.
One big storm could spell the end for this 350-year-old community. Read More