Tangier, measuring just 4km by 1½km, lies 19km out in the Chesapeake, which links the Atlantic Ocean with the port city of Baltimore in Maryland and, via the Potomac river in Washington DC.Think about that a minute. Water doesn't pile well. What they are counting as "sea level rise" is actually the land sinking, for reasons both natural and man made, and none of those reasons due to climate change. For all of the 20th century, the water in the Chesapeake Bay has been rising relative to land at about the same rate, with no hint of acceleration due to "climate change":
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For the climate change doubters in Washington’s corridors of power, the island is a very close example of the planet’s race against time. It is just 90 miles from the US capital as the crow flies.
The United States Geological Service (USGS) said in a 2013 report that the southern Chesapeake Bay region is experiencing “the highest rates of sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast of the United States.”
The pumping of groundwater on the mainland is compacting aquifers and leading the land to subside. This combined with rising sea levels is resulting in “a relative sea-level rise” of between 3½-5mm a year, according to Jack Eggleston, a hydrologist with the USGS and a co-author of the report.
“It is a gradual thing but as the years go by, that change stacks up and it makes a difference,” he says.
A 2012 report on climate change in the Hampton Roads, an area of towns and water in the southern Chesapeake, commissioned to prepare the area for the decades ahead, found that given the region was experiencing sea-level rise at a rate greater than the current global average, a one-metre scenario of local sea level rise by the year 2100 is “both plausible and defensible.”
All this does not bode well for Tangier.Darn right. When your island is only 4 feet high, and a hurricane can throw up a 10 foot storm tide, you're gonna get wet, at a minimum. But it isn't necessarily due to climate change. The salt marsh islands have been rising with sea level for ages, quite literally. Salt marsh grown vertically as grass lays down peat, and high tides supply sediment to fill to soil. However, they have no way to grow from the side, and they can't grow under pavement or buildings. Only the native salt grasses have this ability.
“If a large hurricane came straight up the bay, you would not want to be on Tangier Island,” says Eggleston. The concern is that unless a large sea wall is built around the island, all that will remain is the island’s big water tower.
“There is a definite thought that the island is in danger,” says Eggleston.
However, the Tangier residents are not being fooled:
Eskridge, pointing to the tidal canals in the marshlands between the island’s ridges, says that during a storm about 75 per cent of the island will go under water. The mayor doesn’t see climate change as the problem.There have been a lot of islands lost in the Bay, much the same way as fictionalize in Michner's Chesapeake. But more are being created as the marsh lands attached to the Eastern Shore are slowly cut off and turned into islands. The process can be seen on Taylors Island, across the Bay from us.
Tangier has been losing land for centuries, he says – the island was three times the size it is now back in 1608.
“The erosion that is going on, it has been going on since Capt John Smith sailed here,” he said. “We had a lot of land to give up at the time but when the erosion gets to your doorstep, you pay more attention to it. I don’t believe it is increasing. It is just getting so close now that we don’t really have a lot of time to play with.”
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“I’ve been here 72 years and I don’t see no difference. We have our high tide in the spring and in the fall, just like we did when I was a boy,” says George Cannon.
“I just think lots of people get rich with it,” says Gordy Bruce Gordon (75) of those campaigning to raise awareness about climate change. He names Al Gore.
Although in the growing purple state of Virginia, Tangier is dark red. About 90 per cent of people on the island vote Republican, says Eskridge. It is conservative and Christian. Businessman Donald Trump, retired surgeon Ben Carson and Texas senator Ted Cruz are the most popular Republican candidates on the island.
Carol Moore, sitting in her golf cart, says she is not naive to think that sea levels are not rising. “Is it affecting Tangier? I don’t know,” she says.Not necessarily. If the residents of Tangier value the island enough, they can do as the Venetians did to Venice, another island originally built on salt marsh islands. Protect the shore, and build up. Maybe a cathedral or two.
She contemplates an uncertain future on Tangier for her grandchildren.
“There may be people living here in the next 50 years. I doubt it. I truly doubt it,” she says. “I would think that at some point in my grandchildren’s lives, they will have to relocate.”