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Climate Change and Erosion Are Killing the Tangier Islands

The culturally significant Chesapeake Bay islands have lost two-thirds of their land since 1850, and could vanish altogether by 2070, an Army Corp of Engineers study finds.
The harbor at Tangier Island. (Photo: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr)

The harbor at Tangier Island. (Photo: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr)

It's easy to think of climate change as a distant and not-too-terrible threat. Tell that to the 700-some residents of Virginia's culturally unique Tangier Islands, which lie smack in the middle of Chesapeake Bay: New research shows that sea level rises due to climate change has already consumed two-thirds of the islands' land since 1850, and much of the rest will be gone in 50 years unless something's done to slow the sea's advance.

The study's authors do not mince words: "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recognizes that climate change is upon us and that adaptation to climate change is 'not optional,'" write Army Corp of Engineers researchers David Schulte, Karin Dridge, and Mark Hudgins in Scientific Reports. "The Tangier Islands and the Town [of Tangier] 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 U.S.A."

To come to that conclusion, Schulte, Dridge, and Hudgins collected maps of the Tangier Islands going back to 1850. Using specialized software developed by the United States Geological Survey, the researchers determined that, in 1850, the three islands—Goose, Uppards, and Tangier (home to the Town of Tangier)—comprised about 875 hectares, or about 3.4 square miles. By 2013, the last year maps of the islands were updated, a combination of rising seas and eroding shores had cut that number to just 319 hectares, or 1.2 square miles.

If those trends continue, "Uppards is expected to be inundated at an accelerating rate compared to the semi-protected Tangier, while Goose, the smallest of the Tangier Islands, is predicted to be entirely inundated by 2038," the team writes. Tidal creeks will then begin to permeate Uppards and Tangier, eroding the land and breaking Tangier into three parts. Even under conservative scenarios, both islands should be submerged by around 2100, with more extreme scenarios "predicting these islands will be lost by the late 2060s."

It may be possible to save that land with a mix of breakwater systems, sand dredging, and tree planting. "If no action is taken," the researchers write, "significant wildlife habitat will be lost, as well as the culturally unique Town of Tangier, the last offshore fishing community in Virginia waters of Chesapeake Bay"—and perhaps the first American victims of climate change.


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.