By Christian Baran
Climate change is abstract. It can be difficult to reconcile information about changing weather patterns or large-scale biodiversity loss with your daily routine. You stagger out of bed, dump sugar in your coffee, and go to work. Your backyard isn’t being deforested. Your streets aren’t flooding. The vast majority of Americans don’t directly encounter obvious effects of climate change in their everyday lives. So, anecdotally, it can seem like our climate is just fine. This is far from the truth.
Stark examples of destruction wrought by climate change exist all around us. Maryland’s sea level rise offers some particularly poignant ones. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Maryland has the second-highest number of communities vulnerable to sea level rise, behind only Louisiana. With over 3000 miles of coastline and an economy that leans on the Chesapeake Bay, any disruptions to water levels create serious ripples. Dozens of communities on the Bay have felt these ripples. Their heartbreaking stories provide clear counters to the sentiment that climate change is abstract. The first story brings us to the quaint town of Smith Island.
Smith Island, a small smear of land rising out of the Chesapeake Bay, has captured the heart of every Marylander for good reason. The Smith Island Cake — a 9-layer yellow cake with mouthwatering chocolate icing — is Maryland’s official dessert. The island has been inhabited for over 350 years and is embedded in Maryland’s culture and history. It’s also rapidly disappearing into the Chesapeake Bay.
Due to the unique geology and location of the Chesapeake Bay, sea levels there are rising twice as quickly as the global average. This sea level rise, combined with the indomitable force of erosion, threatens to put most of Smith Island underwater by 2100. In 2012, the Maryland government tried to buy out homes on the island in the hopes of avoiding future problems with flooding and relocation. Almost all Smith Islanders refused, instead choosing to cling to the hope that erosion controls will save their home. Other Chesapeake islands clung to the same hope, with fateful outcomes.
Just a century ago, Holland Island was the most populated landmass in the Chesapeake Bay. Now, it’s little more than a patchwork of marsh poking out of the swells. In 2010, the last house standing on Holland Island collapsed, setting the scene for one of the most poignant portraits of sea level rise to ever be captured (pictured to the right). In 2019, rising sea levels and erosion caused the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to close its educational facility on nearby Great Fox Island. Other landmasses, including an atoll called Tangier Island, are barreling towards similar futures.
Tangier Island is a tiny patch of land in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, famous for being the world’s leading supplier of soft-shell crab. Its 500-odd inhabitants are primarily crabbers — most of them can trace their ancestry back to one man who arrived on the island over 250 years ago. At an elevation of only about four feet, Tangier Island is being eaten alive by a deadly combination of erosion and sea-level rise. According to one study, Tangier Island could become completely uninhabitable within just a couple of decades, marking its residents among the first climate refugees in the continental United States. The island and its people are running out of time.
Despite the water inundating their home, most of Tangier Island, staunchly conservative, takes a dim view of climate change. Residents concede that their island is sinking, but they argue that it is due to erosion, not climate change. Scientists disagree, but findings do little to sway popular opinion on Tangier Island.
If Tangier Islanders don’t see climate change as a threat as their homes disappear under their feet due to sea level rise, it’s easy to see how those even further removed from its impacts brush it off so easily. Even Tangier Islanders, despite their conundrum, can see climate change as an abstract concept and their plight as an isolated incident. After all, erosion is a much more intuitive concept than invisible gases trapping heat in our atmosphere. But, like climate change, the cases I’ve mentioned above are not isolated, and climate change is far from abstract if you let yourself trust the science behind it.
Rising waters and erosion have swallowed hundreds of Chesapeake islands over the last several centuries. Because sea levels are rising faster in the Chesapeake Bay than anywhere else on the East Coast, the situation there is a good indication of what we can expect to see for coastal cities in years to come, as sea levels gradually catch up. The quandaries of the Chesapeake Bay islands are providing a glimpse into the future of the rest of the Atlantic Coast. It’s not promising.
Maryland is taking action to address climate change. Just last month, the Maryland Senate passed measures to combat climate change, including committing to more electric vehicle usage and mandating larger decreases of greenhouse gas emissions. Some officials, including Sen. Paul Pinsky, say the actions aren’t enough, specifically citing rising sea level rise and sinking islands as examples of clear and present danger.
Pinsky is right on the money: halfhearted government action simply isn’t enough — especially when citizens either don’t believe climate change is happening or feel untroubled by its impacts. It’s impossible to address the problem with that kind of public attitude; until we have a united front against climate change, governments and communities will continue to drag their feet.
To create a united front against climate change, people need to see it breaking others’ hearts. For confirmation of the real, painful destruction climate change is bringing to our states of Maryland and Virginia, turn your neighbor’s head to the sea. They may be able to catch a glimpse of a Chesapeake island, bursting with culture and life, before it slides beneath the waves.