This Virginia community could wash away in just 25 years.
Tangier Island is one mile wide, four feet above sea level and sinking. Fast.
The island’s official website describes the town as an “Unspoiled fishing village with quaint, narrow streets.” Business Insider writes that the community is “Largely unknown…one of the most isolated and extraordinary places in the continental US.” Selected as one of National Geographic Traveler’s top 20 places to visit in 2016, Tangier Island, located 90 miles south of Washington, DC, is a must-see?—?if only because the island may soon be entirely underwater.
Tangier’s community consists of only 500 residents. The group is tight-knit and proud?—?many inhabitants can trace their lineage back to the original settlers of the Chesapeake Bay. Predominantly working class, with a median income of around $40,000, most residents find employment as “watermen,” serving as commercial crabbers or fishing for oysters. Others toil in the island’s hospitality industry, working in one of the dozen or so restaurants or bed and breakfasts, catering to the tourists who filter in every summer.
Accessible only by an hour-and-a-half long ferry ride from the coast, Tangier’s community of fishermen may become the country’s first climate change refugees. The land is sinking and climate change scientists estimate the island will be underwater within the next 50 to 100 years.
Erasing the island
A sign on the island carefully details the community’s long history. John Smith explored Tangier in 1608 and John Crockett and his eight sons settled the island less than 80 years later (“Crockett” remains one of the island’s most common surnames).
Tangier’s land is disappearing, but this is not a new problem. In the mid-1800s, the island contained 2,062 acres. By 1997, there were 768 acres left, only 83 of which were inhabitable. To date, two-thirds of Tangier’s land mass is depleted. Business Insider reports the island loses nine acres of land every year to climate change-related causes, like erosion and rising tides.
A dry community with a wet problem
Tangier is a dry island?—?alcohol is unavailable for purchase anywhere, a nod to the community’s strong religious faith. But prayer is not enough to prevent the water from rising: Experts predict sea levels will increase up to six feet by the end of the century.
The water coursing through Tangier, obscuring the streets, is directly linked to climate change. As global temperatures rise, oceans enlarge in a process known as thermal expansion. Thermal expansion is compounded by melting ice caps and glaciers: The warmer the Earth gets, the more water there is to deal with.
Tangier, which is built on a sandy foundation, is ill equipped to deal with the fallout. Residents regularly bury family members in their fronts yards to prevent the sea from sweeping the bodies away. Without outside intervention, the whole of Tangier is likely to go the same route as the Uppards, a submerged neighborhood on the island’s north side. Once a residential community, the Uppards now serves as a cautionary tale or fateful preview of Tangier’s not-too-distant future.
Though the island is isolated, the problem is not
Tangier is not the first island in danger of washing away. Climate change scientists estimate that the Chesapeake Bay was once the home of up to 500 islands. Now, all of them are gone.
The island’s only hope is a $30 million dollar sea wall, which would barricade the eastern length of Tangier. A similar seawall was constructed on the island’s west side in 1990. Congress has yet to approve funding for the project and Tangier is quickly running out of time.
Tangier’s water crisis is notable because it will set the tone for how the United States deals with future climate change refugees. The United States has over 88,000 miles of shoreline and as sea levels continue to rise, these areas will become increasingly vulnerable.
Going forward, the government will be forced to weigh areas like Tangier?—?an island that in 2014 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the last offshore fishing community in Virginia?—?against areas like Miami, the Jersey Shore, the Outer Banks, the Delmarva Peninsula and Long Island. Huge decisions will be made about who to save?—?and who will sink.
These decisions are coming and they’re coming fast: Climate change scientists say it’s possible Tangier may need to be abandoned within the next 25 years. If you’re going to visit, do it now.