VA - Down Goes Tangier
Unfortunately, Tangier will be neither the first nor the last piece of Chesapeake Bay history lost to erosion and rising tides. About 500 islands have essentially vanished since the early colonial period.
In 2015, researchers from the US Army Corps of Engineers published findings that, to Chesapeake Bay area residents, were likely unsurprising: Tangier Island is sinking, and fast.
A tiny island west of Virginia’s Eastern Shore and the current home to about 400 people, Tangier is highly vulnerable to rising tides and harsher, more frequent storms brought on by rapid climate change. Current estimates predict that the island will be completely uninhabitable by the 2050s, generating hundreds of climate refugees and signaling the beginning of an era where Tangier’s fate may not be all that uncommon. The drowning of the island’s rich culture under the Chesapeake waves represents a history lost to negligence. Our passive indifference will make it no less tragic.
"The drowning of the island’s rich culture, history, and vernacular by the Chesapeake waves will almost certainly be a scar beneath the surface, history lost to negligence. Our passive indifference will not make it any less of a tragedy, only hastening America’s defeat in the global fight against climate change."
Long before the arrival of English colonists, Tangier was a hunting retreat for groups indigenous to the Eastern Shore, such as the Pocomoke people. The arrowheads still dotting the beaches suggest that a diverse ecosystem flourished on the island for centuries. English colonists displaced many Chesapeake Bay Native communities and drew up a remote fishing and agricultural village largely secluded from the mainland. To this day, the surnames of the island’s residents are a short list, one that aligns closely with the records of those who arrived there centuries prior. Tangier briefly became a place of refuge for enslaved people in the region during the War of 1812 when hundreds fled to the British Fort Albion to trade military service for emancipation. Today’s residents of the island even preserve a distinct English dialect owing to their relative solitude on the open waters of the Bay. The loss of two-thirds of the island’s landmass over the past two centuries has rendered farming impossible, leading the islanders to adapt and embrace crabbing as their primary industry. Unfortunately, Tangier’s rich history seems to be drawing to a close, with pessimistic climate projections dampening any hopes for natural resource preservation.
Policymakers face a uniquely bleak and wildly expensive set of options to mitigate the devastation of Tangier. After decades of inaction, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Representative Elaine Luria are currently fighting to secure $25 million to augment the island’s barricades from flooding. While an undoubtedly well-intentioned effort, there is little evidence that this project would do much more than prolong the continuing loss of land mass. The aforementioned US Army Corps of Engineers study predicted that it will cost $250-$350 million to fully protect the island from rising sea levels and $100-$200 million to relocate the island’s residents to solid ground. Given this grim prognosis, it seems unlikely that this federal money would be well spent on such stopgap projects. As one local journalist put it, “Mother Nature seems determined—and destined—to win” the fight against communities like Tangier.
Unfortunately, Tangier will be neither the first nor the last piece of Chesapeake Bay history lost to erosion and rising tides. About 500 islands have essentially vanished since the early colonial period. Despite the severity of the situation, even the Island’s current residents are unsure about Tangier’s future. High levels of doubt regarding the effect of rising sea levels, coupled with the unsubstantiated reassurances by former President Trump that the island has “hundreds of years more,” have severely undermined efforts to sound alarm bells.