Chesapeake Bay islands will be underwater in 50 years, study says

The residents of Tangier Island—a small community on a landmass completely surrounded by the waters of the Chesapeake Bay—could be the first American climate refugees, claims new research led by the US Army Corps of Engineers in Norfolk District, Virginia.

According to New Scientist, marine biologist David Schulte and his colleagues found that most of the island, which is located a little over 105 miles southeast of Washington DC, could end up completely underwater in the next 50 years unless steps are taken to keep rising waters at bay.

That spells bad news for the approximately 700 people that call Tangier Island home, as Schulte found that the size of the island has already shrunk by about one-third—from 875 hectares to 320 hectares—since 1850. Based on the established land-loss rate and the sea-level spikes expected to occur in the near future, his team predicts that the island could be submerged by 2065.

“The islands are shrinking and unless corrective action is taken, they will be lost,” Schulte, who was lead author on a Nature Scientific Reports study detailing the findings, told The Guardian on Thursday. “The whole island won’t be underwater but it will turn into marshland.”

Not too late to save the island

Currently, Schulte explained, Tangier is less than four feet (1.2 meters) above sea level, which means that “a moderately severe increase” in surface water height will put the people calling the island home “in extreme jeopardy of storms and flooding.” If the sea level only rises a little, the residents of the island may have about a century before catastrophe strikes, he added.

The study authors explained that a combination of factors is driving the sea level to increase at a rate nearly twice that of the global average of 0.13 inches (3.5 millimeters) per year. Changes in the Atlantic currents, combined with retreating glaciers and soil subsidence due to risks resulting from groundwater extraction are ravaging the historic and wildly popular tourist destination.

Fortunately, Schulte said that it isn’t too late to save the island. By using solid breakwaters and artificial sand dunes to protect against the waves, the residents could help save their town, along with the wetlands habitats found on other, nearby islands. Former ridges could be established and new dunes constructed within two if given the go-ahead from Congress, he said to New Scientist.

“It would cost around $20 million to $30 million,” he told The Guardian. “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.”


Feature Image: Thinkstock