As the owner and operator of Seaside Eco-tours, Capt. Meriwether Payne ferries passengers from the Wachapreague Town Marina to the barrier islands just beyond the marshes of the shoreline village. The nature surrounding Virginia's Eastern Shore is the heart of her business, but the rising sea level and the resulting increase in coastal flooding are threatening Payne's excursions.And they've been there to see it.
"There seems to be more and more days when we have to walk through water to get to the dock or have to move to a dock other than the town marina to pick up customers," Payne said.
The Nature Conservancy of Virginia hosted a community event last month to discuss the impacts of sea-level rise in Accomack County, which encompasses the northern half of Virginia's Eastern Shore and the approximately 200 residents of Wachapreague. At the meeting, Payne said it's difficult getting customers to her boat during high tide.
Residents heard from the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission and staff from the Nature Conservancy, who spoke about planning for and responding to climate change. However, some on the Eastern Shore are skeptical about the severity of the issue. "You will find that there are a large percentage of people on the shore that do not think anything is going to affect them in their lifetime — particularly older folks," Payne said.
The effects of these environmental hazards are apparent more than ever on Tangier Island, which sits in the Chesapeake Bay. It has lost 67 percent of its landmass since 1850, with much of the remaining landmass expected to be underwater within the next 50 years, forcing residents to abandon their homes.We've seen Tangier mentioned many times. What articles like this won't say is that the loss of land on Tangier and similar eastern shore salt marsh islands is that the loss is not due to sea level rise, but due to erosion at the edges. Left to themselves, salt marshes will grow upwards, as they accrete decaying plant material and sediment on their surfaces. But they can't grow new area very easily.
Cedar Island, in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Wachapreague, is one of many barrier islands guarding the coasts of Virginia. It is a frequent destination on Payne's tours.Barrier islands are not a stable land form. They shift around with the winds and water. While they can grow upward to match sea level given an ample supply of sand, they may not stay in the same place for very long.
For decades, the island housed dozens of residents who built homes on the land. But like Tangier, the sea slowly claimed the beaches and surrounding marshland. Some homes were lost as well. Other homeowners took it upon themselves to uproot their houses and move them inland where they would be safe. The last house was removed from the island in 2015.
Also residing in Wachapreague is the Eastern Shore Laboratory of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The lab acts as a station for teaching as well as a site for research. While it exists primarily to study coastal ecology and marine life, the scientists there are well aware of the changes going on around them.To be fair, within the historical past, it's really been rising, albeit slowly, and with no sign of acceleration. At 4.6 mm/yr, the sea level at Sewells Point, VA is rising at about 14 inches over the course of an average 78 year life span. That's not nothing, but it's not fast.
Richard Snyder, the lab's director and an Eastern Shore resident, said the rise in sea level is nothing new for coastal areas of Virginia.
"Sea level has never been static. It's always been going up and down," Snyder said. "Now, it's just a matter of how well we adapt to it."
The institute is changing in response to the rise in sea level, much like the residents of Cedar Island. They're in the beginning stages of a building campaign that would move a number of administrative and research buildings inland to an area known as the "Wachapreague Highlands" because it is slightly more elevated than the surrounding area. Other buildings will be lifted and placed on stilts so they can withstand flooding that threatens their foundations.Yep, once in a while you may need to build new piers, too.