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Vanishing lands of the Chesapeake

Dec 28, 2017
The house on Holland Island before the final collapse.

The house on Holland Island before the final collapse.

To the editor: It’s an image I’ll never forget: a solitary wooden house floating on the waters of the eastern Chesapeake, surrounded by a small pile of sandbags and covered with cormorants and gulls. It stood there, defiant against the breaking surf and rain, waiting for its occupants to return.

Hang on a minute — houses don’t float in the middle of the Bay. I grabbed the binoculars to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, but there it was.

The Chesapeake is full of odd structures like this; some serve as navigational aids that guide ships as they make their way north to Baltimore. And as we sailed by that day way back in the early 2000s, I had believed this to be one of them. A quick check of the chart, however, revealed nothing there but a spit of land. Apparently, we were looking at a specter.

I would later learn that this was the last remaining house on Holland Island, a once-thriving community of fishermen and their families who lived on the 225-acre island until persistent erosion forced its abandonment around 1922. With each passing year the island had shrunk in size until every home and business was either removed or washed away, with one exception: the house we saw.

The sandbags had been placed there by Stephen White, a retired Methodist minister who spent time on the island as a boy. Purchasing the rapidly disintegrating island in 1995, he went on a quixotic mission to save it, expending enormous sums on construction equipment, levees and sunken barges before finally capitulating after realizing that all his efforts were for naught. In 2010, he sailed away. Today the house and neighborhood he knew so well is but a memory, a shoal spot in the Bay that can only be seen in satellite images.

I didn’t know at the time that this was a sign of things to come. We continued south from the Bay to our new lives in Florida and had not returned until this July, again in a boat, to show my daughters why I love this place and why it’s so special.

The Chesapeake, especially the Eastern Shore, has always been soggy and prone to nuisance flooding. The islands, once numbering in the hundreds, have been washing away since long before there were people to live on them — 13 have vanished from charts since English settlement. But the Bay, after all, is essentially the Susquehanna River, surrounded by silt and sand that was flooded by the rising ocean eons ago. Nor’easters and spring tides inundated docks and parking lots with regularity; it was just part of the experience, part of its unique character.

But what we saw when we returned this summer shocked me and shook me to the core. The Bay is rapidly rising and washing away the land. The future of entire communities and counties are in jeopardy from rising sea levels not in the distant future but within our lifetimes. The last two inhabited offshore islands, Smith and Tangier, are fighting for their survival as saltwater regularly floods their streets and soaks their lawns.

The people of these unique and tight-knit communities trace their heritage directly back to Cornwall, England, and they still speak in that dialect. They survive via crabbing in the summer, oystering in the winter and tourism whenever they can get it. Estimates of how much longer they have before the islands must be abandoned range from 100 years to “the next bad hurricane.”

Both islands are less than 5 feet above the high-tide line and the winds, primarily from the west, persistently eat away their shorelines. Tangier has lost two-thirds of its land since 1850 and if drastic action is not taken soon, the people there will become the first climate change refugees in the continental U.S. “If there is a storm at high tide,” said Claudia Parks, a longtime resident of Tangier, “everything on Tangier is covered with water.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has an ambitious and expensive plan to reduce the erosion of both islands with breakwaters and dunes made from reclaimed sand, but this would only buy them another 50 to 100 years. “What you really need is an effort to raise the remaining land,” said marine biologist Dave Schulte. “But you would have to do that in addition to the stonewall protection. Otherwise, you’ll get a fishbowl effect where you’ll have stone around the island, but any storm event is going to overtop them and flood the entire interior.”

But as the oceans rise and storms intensify, the demise of Smith and Tangier will be only a prologue to a much greater drama: large communities like Norfolk, Baltimore, Annapolis and Ocean City struggling to cope with regular neighborhood flooding and saltwater intrusion. Large stands of trees are dying in greater numbers as the tides encroach their roots, leaving behind “ghost forests.” And the increased depth of the water, combined with the absence of barrier islands, will bring more destructive waves that erode the delicate shoreline.

Maryland has huge tracts of rural and urban land less than 5 feet above sea level, which puts it along with Florida and Louisiana among the states most vulnerable to sea-level rise. The most recent report from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science advises the state to plan for a sea-level rise of up to 2 feet by 2050, and 3.7 feet by the end of the century, emphasizing that the state will need to build adaptation into planning processes.

The Union of Concerned Scientists are more alarming in their assessment, stating that due to a combination of rising seas and sinking land, 12 communities that meet their current threshold for chronic inundation are located along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These include Smith Island, Dames Quarter, Asbury, Madison, Elliott, Taylors Island and Crisfield.

They advocate a shift to a strategy of “retreat and relocation” from chronically inundated areas, defined as usable lands that are flooded more than 26 times per year.

The Maryland Climate Action Plan, created at the behest of the governor in 2012, is also disturbingly candid. Going forward, it assumes that the air temperature will increase at 3 degrees Fahrenheit per year and that this increase is unavoidable, and sea-level rise is likely to accelerate and inundate up to 200 square miles of land.

So what can be done? The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is that America’s heavy use of fossil fuels is the primary cause of all this and that America needs to quickly curtail the use of those fossil fuels. But the truth is, for the people of the Chesapeake, the time for blaming and arguing is way past. The majority of people on Tangier, Smith and communities most immediately affected by sea-level rise insist that it’s due to simple erosion, and they are petitioning hard to obtain federal funds to protect their shores.

But for my small family and me, we sailed through this place, visiting as many communities as possible, meeting the residents and listening to their stories. Privately we hoped that my daughters would not return one day to find a lone house standing where the town — all these towns — used to be.

—Robert Beringer sails his Catalina 34 Ukiyo based out of Florida’s St. Johns River.

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