This Chesapeake Bay Island Could Be Uninhabitable In 50 Years

In the part of the Chesapeake Bay that belongs to Virginia, Tangier Island faces an uncertain future as climate change has allowed the ocean to erode its land at an alarming rate.

The U.S. army corps of engineers released a new report regarding Tangier Island that is published in the journal, Scientific Reports. The report shows that only 33% of Tangier Island’s landmass that was present in 1850 now exists. If the sea level continues to rise at this rate, the town of Tangier will be uninhabitable before 2065.

On the western portion of the island, around 14 feet of shore is lost to the ocean each year. The eastern half of the island is faring a little better, but erosion is happening there as well. Engineers warn that the island’s creeks are on pace to swell and actually break the island up into smaller fragments.  

The author of the new report, David Schulte, stated that, “The islands are shrinking and unless corrective action is taken they will be lost. The whole island won’t be underwater but it will turn into marshland. Tangier is only [about 1.5 yards] above sea level now so a moderately severe sea level rise will put them in extreme jeopardy of storms and flooding. Even under a low sea level rise they will have about a century. So far they’ve been pretty lucky with storms. They were spared the brunt of Hurricane Sandy. I don’t think it would’ve recovered from that. We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed on that score.”

Schulte further adds that Tangier is getting hit by a “perfect storm” in that the sea level rise is almost double the average across the globe of a little less than ½ inch per year. The changing Atlantic currents, receding soils and glacial retreat risks turning this historic island into a swamp.

Tangier Island is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with most buildings were built prior to 1930. It’s a quiet place with spotty cell phone reception. Officially, the island is alcohol-free and people tend to leave their doors unlocked.

Renée Tyler, Tangier’s town manager, observes that, “It’s one of the last true colonial places left in the U.S. It’s not like Williamsburg, which is all fancied up. We don’t have people bringing money here to fancy us up. We are a proud, hardworking community. There are strong morals and ethics. It’s a religious place.”

But, stopping Tangier from washing into the sea will take time and money. Some measures have been taken to protect the land, including the building of a stone jetty by the airstrip in 1990. This helped prevent some erosion. Future plans include the building of additional seawalls around the harbor.

But, it will take more than a few sea walls to save the island. Schulte points out that, “It would cost around $20 million to $30 million. Hopefully Congress will look at this report and decide that this island is worth saving. A lot of people think sea level rise is something a long way off, but this is affecting people now.”

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