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Tangier Island in the morning | © J. Albert Bowden II / Flickr
Tangier Island in the morning | © J. Albert Bowden II / Flickr
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Tangier, an Island in the Chesapeake Bay, Is Disappearing

Picture of Alexia Wulff
Updated: 28 January 2017
In the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) from either coast (Virginia or Maryland), lies a cluster of tiny, remote islands divided by marshes and tidal streams, each connected to the next by wooden bridges. Tangier, which was a single piece of land when first discovered in the early 1600s, now encompasses just 1.2 square miles (3.1 square kilometers). And with climate change rapidly affecting planet Earth – rising sea levels and wild weather patterns – the island is now threatened. According to a study by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Tangier could sink into the ocean in as little as 50 years.

Climate change has been the talk of the decade. Its firm grip is taking hold of regions around the world – distant islands such as the Maldives or Kiribati are in danger of rising sea levels, and polar bears are losing their habitat as Arctic glacier ice melts rapidly – but few are aware that a natural catastrophe is happening right here in the U.S. According to researchers, Tangier is located in a ‘hot spot’ of rising sea levels where water moves upon the land at a much faster rate than the global average. Currently, Tangier is just four feet above sea level at its highest point. And if action isn’t taken to prevent the desolation of this Virginian island, it may be submerged in the next 100 years, forcing residents to evacuate and leave their home as early as 2040; this would make Tangier residents the first climate change refugees in the continental United States.

Figure 1: Location and configuration of the Tangier Islands, in Virginia waters of Chesapeake Bay, USA. | © Nature.com
Figure 1: Location and configuration of the Tangier Islands, in Virginia waters of Chesapeake Bay, USA. | © Nature.com

When first discovered in 1608 by Captain John Smith, Tangier was actually a single piece of land, but as sea levels rose over the following years, water consumed the land, breaking it into several smaller islands. By 1850, over 66 percent of Tangier’s landmass had disappeared under water. Researchers believe this is due to the melting Laurentide Ice Sheet – which used to cover Canada and much of the U.S. – a process called glacial rebound, with the water now flooding the bay. Also, groundwater pumping causes rock and sediment beneath the surface to compact, fall on itself, and eventually drop under the water. Experts believe that if land loss and sea level rising rates continue at this alarming rate, Tangier will be completely flooded by 2106 – possibly as early as 2070. Researchers suggest building a breakwater system offshore (a sea wall), which will protect the coast from the waters of the bay, and reinforcing the sand dunes to help prevent land loss – a project that would cost 20 to 30 million dollars to complete.

shoreline-houses-tangier-island-virginia | © J. Albert Bowden II/Flickr
Houses on the shoreline of Tangier Island, Virginia | © J. Albert Bowden II/Flickr

Today, 500-700 full-time residents occupy Tangier. A boat brings food and supplies to the island every morning, and many residents sell blue crabs and oysters caught in the bay waters to a local fishing boat. The community is strongly tied to religious morale – it’s a dry area, or alcohol-free – and nearly everyone speaks with a heavy accent native to Tangier. Most of the houses are either abandoned or in poor condition, and golf carts are used to get around the island (cars are prohibited). The island has five restaurants, two B&Bs, a few gift shops, and one history museum.

Ferries depart from Crisfield, Maryland to Tangier seven days a week, 365 days a year and from Onancock, Virginia seasonally (May through mid-October).

Virginia Guard aviators deliver supplies to iced-in Tangier Island | Public Domain/WikiCommons
Virginia Guard aviators deliver supplies to iced-in Tangier Island | © Staff Sgt. Terra Gatti
birds-crowd-along-abandoned-pier-tangier-island | © J. Albert Bowden II/Flickr
Birds on an abandoned pier, Tangier Island | © J. Albert Bowden II/Flickr