Chesapeake Bay’s Vanishing Island

A version of this story appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Uncommon Path

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Tangier Island, Virginia, sits in a 30-mile breadth of the Chesapeake Bay, a dozen miles from Crisfield, Maryland, its nearest mainland port. The isle’s residents—some 475 at most—are mainly crabbers, or families of crabbers, who speak a distinct patois virtually untouched by outside influence since the island was inhabited nearly 250 years ago. Tangier has 3 miles of road not wide enough for a car and a fleet of golf carts and bikes to get around. It sits on the National Register of Historic Places. And it’s disappearing. Tangier was always disappearing.

Just like Spry’s Island, Holland, Sharps and Great Cove, other largely forgotten Chesapeake islands. Just like the hundreds of bay islands that have vanished in decades and centuries past. Amid the slow, dispassionate grind of erosion, Tangier would’ve realistically gone within 100 years, maybe 200. But now, in a diabolical marriage of climate-accelerated sea-level rise and the existing erosion, Tangier is dissolving exponentially faster.

Water doesn’t just eat at Tangier’s shoreline; it bleeds up through the land. At an elevation of 3 to 4 feet, high ground is transforming to marsh, marsh to mudflat, and mudflat to open water. According to 2013 research from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tangier had just 25 habitable years left in it in a worst-case scenario. Six years later, and that worst case is a reality. Dave Schulte, a marine biologist who coauthored the research, says the island will now likely need to be abandoned within two decades.

Tangier won’t be the only island to go, but it will be one of the first in this country to disappear due to climate change. Smith Island, Maryland, a smaller tourism colony 6 miles to the north, will likely follow. “If we want to have any islands,” Schulte warns of the remaining Chesapeake Bay and beyond, “then we need to start to save them, and make decisions about which ones to save.”


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