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Chesapeake Islanders Will Likely See Serious Sea Rise

Dec 10, 2015 06:10 PM EST
Holland Island waterfront, Chesapeake Bay
This is actually a photo of Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay, but a recent study says that sea rise will likely make Tangier Island in the center of the bay the first casualty of climate change in the continental United States within 25 to 50 years. The island has 700 residents. Captain John Smith of Jamestown was the first white man to step on the island, as far as is known.
(Photo : Flickr: Baldeaglebluff)

The 700 or so residents of a fishing village and the rest of an island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay may turn out to be the first citizens of the continental United States to experience rising seas, concludes a report by oceanographer David M. Schulte and two fellow scientists with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The report was recently published in the journal Nature.

The study involved Tangier Island and its nearby, smaller islands, the last inhabited islands in Virginia waters in the Chesapeake Bay. The islands' landmass has decreased by 66.75 percent since 1850.

Researchers looked at three scenarios of sea level rise (SLR): low, mid and high. In the mid-range SLR version, the islands' remaining landmass would largely be lost in 50 years and the town there would need to be abandoned. Under the scenario of high SLR, much of the land would be lost within 25 years.

The report proposed a plan aiming to extend the lifespan of the islands and the town.

Many of the islanders are multiple-generation residents. Currently, about 700 people are Tangier residents, and they are largely fishermen. Captain John Smith, of Jamestown, is thought to be the first white man who set foot on the island 400 or so years ago.

Carol Pruitt-Moore, who is a seventh generation Tangier islander, told an Associated Press reporter: "I think it'll be less than 50 years. We are one storm away from being washed away or being forced to evacuate."

Two things are affecting the islands: climate change and subsidence, or the sinking of the bay. The latter is left over from the last ice age; when the ice melted, land sprang up, but the bay began to sink.

In the study, after analyzing maps and aerial photos of the islands, 1850 through 2013, the study authors made a model to predict the lifespan of the islands. They also say that if breakwaters and other measures were built, costing $30 million to $40 million, perhaps Tangier could stay above water another 50 years.

"The Tangier Islands and the town are running out of time, and if no action is taken, the citizens of Tangier may become the first climate change refugees in the continental USA," as the report concludes. 

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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