First Climate Change Refugees In The U.S. Expected From Chesapeake Bay

Tangier Island is under threat from the sea that it depends on. areeya_ann/Shutterstock

Rising seas will make Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, uninhabitable within 50 years, a new paper predicts. The island's population could become refugees from climate change on the doorstep of America's capital. The island's loss will take with it a unique dialect of English that has survived four centuries of cultural development.

The low-lying Tangier Islands of Chesapeake Bay have been permanently inhabited since 1686, but have proven vulnerable to rising sea levels. Tangier Island is one of these spits of land: “Since 1850, 66.75 percent of the island's landmass has been lost,” a paper in Scientific Reports notes. Unless carbon emissions cease soon, the town will be gone within 50 years, and possibly half that time.

Seas are rising worldwide, but changes to ocean currents, tectonic shifts, and groundwater extraction are distributing this unevenly. The mid-Atlantic coast of the U.S. is considered a “hot spot" of relative sea level rise (RSLR). The estuarine wetlands of the Tangier Islands have been severely affected by local sea level change, increasing by around 4.4 millimeters (0.17 inches) a year from 1955 to 2007.

Already, the report notes, more than 500 uninhabited islands have disappeared entirely from the bay. The much slower sea level rise of the early 20th century forced the abandonment of Uppards Island, another member of the Tangier group.

The flatness of Tangier Island creates great conditions for catching shellfish, but makes the island vulnerable to a small rise in sea level. areeya_ann/Shutterstock

Tangier Island itself hosts the remaining population of the group. Already stone breakwaters and rock walls have been built to protect the town and its airport, but a team led by David Schulte of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District say that this will not be enough to save the town without worldwide action on global warming. A combination of additional breakwaters and well-placed dunes could delay the damage, but the paper concludes, “The Tangier Islands and the Town are running out of time, and if no action is taken, the citizens of Tangier may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA.”

“If historic rates of land loss and RSLR were to continue, the islands should be inundated by 2106, possibly as early as 2070,” the authors write. Well before then, however, the town is likely to become uninhabitable as a result of regular flooding during storms. The last census recorded 727 residents of the town, but more recent estimates place the figure lower.

Projections for how much of Tangier Island will be left at different times in the future. Schulte et al./Scientific Reports
Many Pacific islands will be drowned far sooner, and climate change-induced drought has forced millions from their homes, but perhaps climate refugees less than 100 miles from Washington DC will throw the issue into focus.

If the town of Tangier goes, it will take with it a remarkable history. Arrowheads and middens from visiting Pocomoke people are common on the island, while many slaves won freedom by fleeing to it when the island was held by the British in the War of 1812. Like the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Tangier's isolation saw it preserve an accent more similar to that of England than the U.S., and a dialect thought by linguists to resemble that of 17th century England.

(H/T: Live Science)

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