Vanishing Islands

      Dozens of islands in Chesapeake Bay were home to human populations, farms, forests, even a few stores and hotels, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Starting in the early 1900s, islanders migrated to the mainland. Now all but two of these offshore islands have disappeared or no longer sustain the communities that once thrived in isolation.

      Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Islands is a new book about one of those islands, Tangier Island in Virginia. Tangier Mayor James ‘Ooker’ Eskridge is a main character in author Earl Swift’s book, offering enlightening perspectives on what makes the island’s community distinct and the forces that make its existence uncertain.

       Ironically the same water that sustains the island’s economy with crabs, fish and oysters now threatens the buildings, marshes and graveyards that define the Tangier community. Yet a community at visible risk from the encroaching water is not impressed by scientific evidence that human activity is contributing to climate change and sea-level rise.

      Maps document Tangier’s losses: About two-thirds of its land area since 1850 and now about nine acres each year.

      Swift and Eskridge have different ideas about why the island is changing. To Eskridge and most of his neighbors, Tangier is clearly shrinking, but they believe this is due to erosion. Swift reports that a lot of scientists say the problem is due to sea-level rise, subsidence of the land and climate change.

       These different perspectives are not necessarily an either-or proposition. Erosion may be the culprit, but the impacts of waves on the shoreline are more severe each year that water levels rise.

      Tangier Islanders are an especially religious and conservative group, overwhelmingly (87 percent) supporters of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Their support for Trump has attracted media attention in part because Trump has proclaimed climate change a hoax. Islanders at greatest risk from impacts of a changing climate seem to agree. Eskridge and his neighbors believe God provides the bounty of the Bay for their nets and traps, and God will provide a solution to the erosion that is shrinking their island.

      Swift describes Tangier Islanders as fiercely independent and self-reliant. They also are impatient about the time spent studying their eroding shoreline and are eager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a bulkhead or riprap wall around the island. Work is scheduled to begin shortly on a $2.6 million jetty project to protect Tangier’s commercial harbor entrance. This project, conceived in 1994, will not address the larger problems facing the island’s shoreline. 

       Swift points to Tangier as a test case of what the nation will do about coastal communities, including Maryland’s Smith Island, threatened by rising waters. Do taxpayers invest tens of millions of dollars to protect such outposts, holding a population less than 500, with sea walls, jetties and other fortifications or simply abandon them? 

      Showing good humor in the face of adversity, Mayor Eskridge has suggested that visitors to Tangier be required to bring a rock with them to help build that seawall.


      The Chesapeake Bay Foundation ­hosted a discussion of Chesapeake Requiem with author Earl Swift and mayor Eskridge on November 15.