Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia’s Disappearing Tangier Island
Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - A Sinking Ship: Tracking the Island's Disappearance
Tangier Island, located in the Chesapeake Bay, is slowly sinking into the surrounding waters. This sleepy fishing village has seen dramatic land loss over the past 150 years, with scientists estimating that the island has shrunk by 67% since 1850. Once over 1,200 acres, Tangier Island now covers a mere 400 acres.
Experts point to a combination of factors that have led to this alarming disappearance. Rising sea levels, wave erosion, and land subsidence are chipping away at the island's marshy shores. Tangier is especially vulnerable, since it sits just 3-4 feet above sea level. Even minor floods can inundate houses, overwhelm septic systems, and swallow yards whole.
Locals have witnessed their island transform before their eyes. Lifelong resident Carol Moore, now in her 70s, recalls playing softball as a child on grounds that are now covered in water. fisherman Tommy Eskridge, another native, has seen once-bustling crab shacks sitting abandoned along the island's increasingly fragmented western edge. "It's unreal to see how much land we've lost," he laments. "It feels like our home is being washed away."
Scientists have been tracking Tangier's land loss through satellite imagery and on-the-ground measurement. Since the mid-1900s, the Army Corps of Engineers has documented a dramatic 16-foot drop in the island's elevation. Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) estimate that at the current rate, most of Tangier Island could be underwater by 2050. Some portions may vanish completely within the next decade or two.
What else is in this post?
- Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - A Sinking Ship: Tracking the Island's Disappearance
- Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Marshy Isolation: The Island's Unique Geography
- Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Crab Fishing Legacy: The Island's Cultural Heritage
- Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Seeking Solutions: Efforts to Save the Island
- Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Exodus Underway: Residents Fleeing the Sinking Island
- Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Climate Change Accelerates: Rising Seas Threaten Existence
- Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Preservation Difficult: Complex Factors Imperil the Island
- Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Uncertain Future: What's Next for Tangier Island?
Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Marshy Isolation: The Island's Unique Geography
Tangier Island's rapid disappearance can be attributed in part to its unique and precarious geography. This sliver of land sits isolated in the middle of the vast Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles from the Eastern Shore mainland. With no bridge connection, the only way to reach Tangier is by boat or airplane. This marshy isolation exposes the island directly to the eroding forces of wind and waves.
Tangier's foundations are literally built on sinking ground. The island sits atop a quickly subsiding tectonic plate, causing gradual land loss of 1-3 feet per century. Rising seas only accelerate this downward trajectory. Because Tangier lacks high ground or protective barrier beaches, storm surges and floods can more easily wash over the entire island.
The island's core comprises just over 1,000 acres of saltwater marsh. These vital wetlands provide a buffer against erosion, absorbing wave energy and trapping sediment. But they are extremely fragile. Studies by marine ecologists have shown that marshes only survive within a narrow sea level "window" - too much water and they will drown. As seas continue rising, Tangier's protective fringe is in danger.
Locals describe feeling the marshes give way beneath their feet as the soggy peat soils compress. Waterman James Eskridge notes that places he could walk as a child are now submerged under several feet of water. Fisherman Tommy Eskridge sees marsh grasses dying off, unable to tolerate the frequent flooding. "The land's just disappearing under our boots,” he says. “Makes it feel like Tangier could be gone tomorrow."
Scientists worry about a feedback loop where marsh loss leads to faster erosion - the fewer wetlands left to protect Tangier's shores, the quicker the island will wash away. VIMS ecologist Donna Marie Bilkovic stresses the urgency of understanding these dynamics, as Tangier serves as a model for how marshes everywhere may fare in coming decades. “Once the erosion starts, it can be hard to stop,” she warns. “And this entire Chesapeake ecosystem depends on these wetlands."
Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Crab Fishing Legacy: The Island's Cultural Heritage
Tangier Island is defined by its heritage of crab fishing. This unique culture stretches back centuries and remains a vital part of island life today. For Tangiermen, crab fishing is more than just an industry - it's a way of life passed down through generations.
The island's crab fishing legacy began in the 1700s, when British colonists recognized Tangier's prime location in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The surrounding waters offered an abundance of blue crabs, which soon became Tangier's staple export. By the 1800s, soft shell crabs had emerged as the island's signature delicacy. Tangiermen perfected innovative techniques for capturing these highly prized molting crabs. Their distinctive crab shanties dotting the harbor became icons of the island's identity.
Crab fishing provided social structure on this isolated outpost. Young boys followed their fathers and uncles onto the water from an early age. Experienced watermen mentored novices, schooling them in the demanding skills of the family trade. Long days on the boats fostered deep camaraderie and community bonds.
The island even developed its own dialect peppered with nautical lingo. Quirky sayings like "unh-unh" (no), "yeိ" (yes), and "omiɡod” (oh my God) reveal traces of centuries-old English regional accents blended with touches of Elizabethan era speech. This unique patter bonds old salts and rookie crabbers alike.
Crab fishing remains vital to Tangier's economy and culture today. Most island families still make their living on the water, with some tracing 10 or more generations in the difficult trade. Parents raise their children to become Tangier's next generation of watermen. Youngsters follow time-honored traditions like placing a live crab in a sibling's bed as a prank. Soft shell crabs straight off the boats remain a signature island delicacy.
But the islanders' future - and that of their crabbing heritage - hangs in the balance as their home disappears. Carol Pruitt-Moore, whose ancestors were among Tangier's founding families, worries that her 5-year-old grandson may be part of the last generation raised on Tangier. “Our heritage is washing away,” she laments. “Once we lose this island, we lose everything that makes us who we are."
Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Seeking Solutions: Efforts to Save the Island
As Tangier disappears, a desperate effort is underway to preserve this cultural jewel box adrift in the Chesapeake Bay. Islanders, scientists, politicians, and grassroots advocates are collaborating to save Tangier’s land, structures, heritage and future before it’s too late.
After decades of seeing their home literally wash away, Tangier residents are taking action. Waterman Tommy Eskridge helped form the grassroots One Tangier organization to raise awareness and push for government assistance. “We can’t just watch the water take our island,” he says. “It’s time to make some noise before Tangier’s gone.” The group’s “SOS” signs posted along the island’s shrinking shores send a visual SOS to the outside world.
Scientists like those at VIMS are gathering data to better understand the complex factors imperiling Tangier. Tracking erosion rates and marsh loss helps inform solutions like subsidence reversal, sand replenishment and engineered breakwaters. “We want Tangier to have the science to make the case for why and how to save their island,” says marine biologist Donna Bilkovic.
Even politicians have joined the fray. Virginia legislator Rob Wittman recently introduced a bill to fund a US Army Corps of Engineers study on protecting Tangier. He stresses that saving this historic fishing community is about more than just one island. “Tangier represents the canary in the coal mine,” he warns. “If we can’t preserve this island, how will we save other coastal towns?”
Conservation groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) advocate for nature-based solutions to shield Tangier’s shrinking wetlands. “Healthy marshes act as natural buffers against erosion, so restoring them is critical,” explains CBF ecologist Beth McGee. The organization received a federal grant to begin a living shoreline pilot project off Tangier's western edge. Installing stone sills to reduce wave impacts and planting marsh grasses could help stem dramatic land loss in this highly vulnerable area.
Even individuals are doing their part to aid Tangier. Mainlanders have donated time and money to help their neighbors offshore. A retired Virginia teacher organizes annual youth immersion trips to teach students about climate impacts on vulnerable communities. “It’s so powerful for these kids to witness firsthand how an entire culture is at risk,” she says. “They leave as advocates for this magical place.”
Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Exodus Underway: Residents Fleeing the Sinking Island
Tangier Island’s disappearing geography threatens more than just land - it imperils the island’s cultural heart and soul. As their homesteads and traditions wash away, many residents feel they have no choice but to flee in an exodus from this vanishing island paradise.
Over the past decades, Tangier’s population has dwindled from a peak of over 1,200 to just over 400 remaining residents today. Island elders estimate that as many as two-thirds of natives have left, seeking more stable futures for their families on the mainland.
This steady outmigration tears at the social fabric of this tightknit community. Lifelong friends scatter to places like Crisfield, Reedville and Salisbury, rarely to return aside from summer visits and funerals. “We’re all moving away and leaving empty places behind,” laments James Wheatley, whose cousins, brother and grandfather all left Tangier.
The exodus disproportionately claims the island’s youth, as college-bound students rarely come back after experiencing life off the island. These youngsters take with them the vitality of the island’s future. Tangier’s median age now hovers near 60, giving it a reputation as an outpost of old salts. “It feels like Tangier’s turning into a retirement village,” jokes Tommy Eskridge. “One good storm could wash us all out to sea.”
But the older generations also feel the pull to abandon their sinking ancestral home. As flooding worsens, many have accepted that Tangier may no longer be habitable for the twilight years. Carol Pruitt-Moore, whose family traces its island roots back before 1686, painfully relocated to Crisfield with her husband as the water crept closer. “Leaving Tangier was one of the hardest decisions we ever made,” she says, eyes welling with tears.
The exodus threatens to unravel the social bonds at the heart of Tangier’s distinct culture. Crabbing crews break up as captains and deckhands scatter. Family crab shanties sit abandoned, no next generation there to take over the demanding trade. The island’s unique dialect fades as younger voices schooled in mainland vernacular grow up off-island.
Tangier’s civic institutions also strain under the population drain. The island’s lone school, once overflowing with students, now educates barely a dozen children total in grades K-12. Rising costs to operate Tangier’s health clinic caused it to close in 2021, forcing sick or injured residents to risk an hour-long boat trip for medical care. Even Tangier’s churches, once bustling community pillars, have shrunk along with their aging congregations.
Islanders clinging to their sinking home feel the full weight of abandonment. “It’s a lonely place with so many friends and family gone,” muses Lewis Parks, whose wife pleaded unsuccessfully for him to leave vulnerable Tangier. As thighs tightknit outpost empties, a pall settles over the island’s remaining holdouts.
Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Climate Change Accelerates: Rising Seas Threaten Existence
Tangier Island sits on the frontlines of climate change, offering a sobering preview of how rising seas may consume vulnerable coastal outposts. This remote fishing village is ground zero for impacts scientists have long warned loom offshore. Now, those threats have arrived on Tangier's ever-diminishing shores.
"Climate change isn't some abstract concept here - we live it every day as the water keeps rising," explains James Eskridge, a third generation Tangier waterman. He's noticed shifting seasons, fishing grounds and even flavors in the crabs as waters warm. But the most palpable change is Tangier's vanishing land. "We've lost so many places we used to play as kids," Eskridge laments. "Now our graveyard's washing away too - feels like we're next."
Scientists unanimously agree swelling seas substantially drive Tangier's land loss, in concert with sinking land and erosion. Since the 1980s, global seas have risen faster than any time in the past two millennia. This accelerating pace imperils coastal zones worldwide, but spells near-certain doom for fragile islands like Tangier barely peeking above the waves.
Data from tidal gauges in the Chesapeake Bay confirm the waters are relentlessly rising here too, with scientists warning levels could climb over five feet by century's end. "Tangier Island is one of the most vulnerable U.S. communities when it comes to sea level rise," warns marine scientist David Schulte of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Other researchers conclude that, even in best case scenarios, the island will likely be uninhabitable by mid-century.
Islanders don't need scientists to tell them that - they feel and see the effects. Carol Pruitt-Moore, whose family has lived on Tangier since the 1600s, charts the dramatic changes outside her window. Shorelines that once stood yards from homes now lap at doorsteps. Yards and gardens disappear as marshes drown. Many homes sustain regular flooding, while abandoned houses collapse into the bay after a decade of exposure. "The water's taking more of our island every year," Pruitt-Moore says. "My biggest fear is waking up one morning to find Tangier gone."
Rising seas pose an existential threat for Tangier Island, rapidly unraveling the land, livelihoods and culture here. As crabbing grounds grow inhospitable and ancestral homesteads slip away, this isolated paradise faces imminent extinction. America risks losing a unique historical gem isolated in the Chesapeake Bay.
Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Preservation Difficult: Complex Factors Imperil the Island
Tangier Island's rapid disappearance stems from a tangled web of contributing factors, complicating preservation efforts. Saving this isolated outpost requires grappling with a complex interplay of geology, ecology and climate change. As shorelines wash away, scientists and advocates alike warn that time is running out to unravel what’s speeding the island’s land loss before it’s too late.
“Tangier’s situation is a perfect storm of challenges all accelerating the island’s demise,” explains Dr. Carl Hershner, an authority on coastal erosion at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Rising seas, sinking land and insufficient sediment all imperil Tangier, but in different ways. Understanding these dynamics is key for targeted solutions.
Sea level rise poses the most urgent threat, as global warming melts ice sheets and thermally expands ocean waters. Researchers conservatively estimate seas around Tangier have risen 6-8 inches since 1950, with future levels projected to swell much higher. “Even one foot of sea level rise can overwhelm a low-lying island without protective dunes or bluffs,” warns Dr. Molly Mitchell, VIMS marine scientist studying Tangier’s plight.
Land subsidence also pushes Tangier closer to the abyss. The island sits atop a sinking tectonic plate, causing gradual land loss of 18 inches per century. Combined with climbing seas, this one-two punch makes drowning inevitable. "Tangier is getting lower while the water gets higher - it's a race the island can't win," explains Hershner. Scientists are exploring nascent subsidence reversal techniques to prop up the island’s sagging foundation.
Erosion further nibbles away at Tangier’s marshy edges. Boat wakes, winds and waves scour the island’s perimeter, chipping away vital buffering wetlands. But the island lacks natural sources of sediment to replenish what’s lost. “Nowhere for new material to come in means a net loss of land over time,” says Mitchell. Conservationists are testing creative ways to reduce erosion and trap more sediment around Tangier’s shores.
Climate change acts as threat multiplier. Rising seas drown marshes from above while accelerating erosion horizontally, consuming land at both ends. Tangier’s isolation means nowhere to flee, as the entire island sits barely above sea level. “Climate impacts create a self-reinforcing feedback loop of marsh loss and land loss as the island shrinks from all sides,” warns Hershner.
Paradise Lost: The Race to Preserve Virginia's Disappearing Tangier Island - Uncertain Future: What's Next for Tangier Island?
The fate of Tangier Island remains uncertain, leaving this isolated fishing community adrift at the edge of extinction. But the island’s plight resonates far beyond its shrinking shores, serving as a poignant example of how climate change may devastate vulnerable coastal settlements. Tangier’s future now hangs in the balance, dependent on the outside world hearing its SOS before it's too late.
“Tangier represents the frontlines – ground zero for sea level rise,” explains marine biologist David Schulte. This remote outpost shows in real time what happens as rising seas chew away at low-lying land with nowhere to retreat. Tangiermen watch helplessly as their family legacy and heritage wash away. “If Tangier can disappear, what’s next for other coastal towns?” worries Mayor James Eskridge. He stresses that saving his island isn’t just about 400 residents, but what Tangier symbolizes for thousands of communities similarly at risk.
Yet solutions remain elusive given the complexity of factors sinking Tangier. Short of relocating the entire island, there are no easy fixes. Some pin hopes on engineering feats like artificial reefs to reduce erosion or even raising the entire island’s elevation. Others propose less drastic solutions like subsidence reversal techniques and living shorelines to stabilize marsh edges. But scientists caution that after decades of neglect while Tangier wasted away, options are limited and expensive.
More ominously, many experts privately admit the battle may already be lost. “I don’t think any realist believes we can save all of Tangier,” whispers a government researcher not authorized to speak publicly. “Perhaps we can prolong the inevitable for a few decades at best.” Even islanders seem split between devising stopgap measures or planning evacuation. As seas continue rising, most concede their island’s days are numbered.
Tangier’s fate carries profound national implications. This disappearing island sheds light on the lack of resources and political will to protect vulnerable enclaves nationwide. “If not even an historic, culturally unique island can garner enough support, what hope is there for saving other coastal communities?” asks scientist David Schulte. Tangier also serves as a microcosm of looming climate migration worldwide, with refugees fleeing the direct impacts of global warming. “Islanders are some of the first American climate migrants, but millions more will follow on the mainland too,” warns policy expert Elizabeth Rush.
Yet TangierIsland refuses to vanish without a fight. “We’re doing all we can to save this island,” declares James Eskridge. “Tangier’s part of America’s heritage - once it’s gone, there’s no getting it back.” Locals hope their island’s plight resonates beyond Virginia’s shores, spurring action before America’s coasts wash away. “My family’s been here since the 1600’s - I can’t imagine this island not being home for my grandson someday too,” muses Carol Pruitt Moore. “But saving Tangier is bigger than just us now."