The great thing about oysters as a barrier is that they can adapt to waters disturbed by tides, storms, and other stresses, even to rising sea levels. During the Ice Age, oysters increased the height of their reefs as sea levels rose as much as 10 millimeters per year. Photo by Ivan/Getty Images

This Humble Mollusk Can Save Shorelines From Rising Seas

As entire islands disappear in Chesapeake Bay, the oyster is enlisted as a first line of climate defense. In Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate-Changed South, Rick Van Noy shows what communities are doing to become more climate-resilient and to survive environmental challenges. Here, he tours Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Virginia Beach, where entire islands are disappearing because of rising sea levels. He finds that, in the shadow of the nearby naval base, the best defense against the effects of climate change may come from an unexpected source: the humble oyster.

After touring some flooding in Norfolk, Virginia, we cruised over to nearby Virginia Beach. Captain Chris Moore motored the Bay Oyster, a white skiff, over to a dockside oyster bar. It sat across from a scrappy clump of sand, mud, and marsh grass, shored up by chunks of concrete from an old bridge, called Fish House Island. It used to be 13 acres but dwindled to one or two now. It’s one of the many islands disappearing in Chesapeake Bay because of sea level rise, erosion, and some complicated combination of the two.

I tried some of the local Lynnhaven oysters, a kind of Atlantic or Virginia oyster. They had a briny taste, a little grit and mineral, firm but slippery smooth with a creaminess. The taste is part texture. Some people push them past the taste buds into the back of the throat, like swallowing a lozenge. As connoisseurs will tell you, oysters take on characteristics of where they grow. In the Lynnhaven River, an estuary of the bay, there is salt, a little soil too, and experts tell me they are fatter higher up in the estuaries than close to the coast because there are more minerals to feed on.

Back in Virginia Beach, Christy Everett, Hampton Roads director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, gave me a tour of the Brock Environmental Center, one of the world’s greenest buildings. With a combination of solar, wind, and geothermal, a triple threat, the center produces 80 percent more energy than it uses.

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