Disappearing Islands

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By: Joe Fehrer

Smith and Tangier Islands; observations, reflection and a path forward:

I had the great privilege recently to join old and new friends on an Upstream Alliance trip to the “bay islands,” the last inhabited enclaves remaining in the Chesapeake. To say these places are “out of time” would be appropriate, but would miss the mark. They’re communities separated by the ebb and flow of the tide, but nonetheless connected and intertwined. They share the same history, sense of place, fate, and fears.

Having grown up in the Eastern Shore town of Snow Hill perched along the Pocomoke River, I have a deep affinity for “place.” Snow Hill will always be home, no matter where life takes me. That bond is no different from that of the islanders we visited on a glorious fall weekend in October. The fact they live on small islands instills an intimacy to their “place.” I can easily travel home again; on an island you don’t have that luxury. Even visiting a neighboring island—say, Smith Island to Tangier—requires extra effort.

I had the opportunity to learn first-hand the challenges that residents of Tylerton, Ewell and Rhodes Point of Smith Island face as they go forward into uncertain times. Their island is slowly being lost to the bay. This isn’t a new phenomenon; many communities on similar islands have been lost to the bay over the centuries. Some survive as sand bars or marsh tumps on nautical charts. Some are gone without a trace except for houses moved long ago to the mainland, refugees from a forgotten time.

“Erosion” (as the islanders describe it) is driving this loss of place. Science tells us sea-level rise is the culprit. To whatever one assigns the blame, the change is happening at a faster rate than in the past.

In time, we will likely see the disappearance of one or more of these communities. However, to say: “It’s just a small town on an island, and they knew the water was rising” would be a mistake. These are communities, generations old, that are proud of their heritage, their connection to land and water, and their religion-steeped island culture.

But the fact remains, the water is coming. How we, as a society, respond will be telling. The islanders may find themselves “climate refugees,” a bitter identity for people so independent and resourceful.

I found hope in the determination of the residents to hold on for as long as possible the culture and history of their communities.

They speak openly about the loss of their islands and their desire for help, perhaps a sea wall or some other type of erosion control. Their worries haven’t handicapped them. Life goes on, and will for some time to come. But for how long is anyone’s guess.

As I contemplated the islanders’ future, I found hope in the young people on this Upstream Alliance trips. Our conversations were lively, thoughtful and forward looking.

Just as my generation, the baby boomers, stand on the shoulders of our parents, these young people stand on ours. Their challenges will be no easier than ours. I think they’re up to the job and it’s our job to provide whatever help they seek.

Click here to see pictures from the expedition