December 10, 2015, by Tim Radford
Road to nowhere: The waters of Chesapeake Bay are set one day to close over Tangier town.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
COP21: The United States, a strenuous doubter of the facts of climate change, will lose an entire town to rising sea level within the next century.
PARIS, 10 December, 2015 – Rising sea levels driven by global warming will submerge a US township within 100 years. America will lose a tiny archipelago of islands in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, and its citizens may be forced to abandon their homes within 25 years.
According to surveys, only 44% of Americans accept the evidence of climate change, but even if the tide of public opinion has yet to turn, the higher tides are on their way, according to David Schulte, a marine biologist with the US Army Corps of Engineers in Norfolk, Virginia.
He and colleagues write in the journal Scientific Reports that evidence from maps and aerial surveys suggests that the Tangier islands, first settled by European colonists more than 300 years ago, have lost two thirds of their landmass since 1850.
And if sea levels continue to rise as they have been for the last 30 years – driven partly by the melting of polar glaciers, and partly by the thermal expansion of the seas – then the tides will be washing over the Tangier islands within a century. Only one of the islands is now inhabited: in 2013 by 727 people.
The news came as small island states in the Pacific continued to press the COP21 climate summit here to aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C, by agreeing to drastic reductions in the use of the fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Clinging to survival
Several Pacific communities – the atoll archipelagoes of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands, embracing an area of ocean four times the size of the US – survive on coral limestone platforms not much more than two metres above sea level. The inexorable rise of the oceans in response to global warming now threatens whole nations with submersion before the end of the century.
Tropical cyclones are predicted to become fiercer or more frequent, and storm surges are already turning the atolls’ precious water reserves brackish, and poisoning island crops.
With support from Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN Commissioner for Human Rights, and Prince Albert II of Monaco, the islanders united to announce the launch of Pacific Rising at the Paris meeting.
The initiative involves a set of concerted but separate attempts to encourage adaptation and economic growth in the islands. “The sea is rising and so must we”, Arnote Tong, president of Kiribati, has said, but the same initiative recognises that it may already be too late to save some of the islands. Whole populations could become climate refugees.
“If no action is taken, the citizens of Tangier may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA”
But ironically the US may be one of the first nations to lose a whole settlement to climate change. Waters off the northeast of the US are reportedly rising faster than the oceans as a whole, and the eastern seaboard is increasingly at risk.
Some of the erosion in the Tangier islands can be put down to tidal influences, and human settlement has meant the abstraction of water, which also lowers the landmass.
But the people of the town of Tangier make a living fishing for blue crab – a $30 million industry in Virginia – and the islands play a valuable role in the local ecosystem, protecting the mainland coastline and providing bird habitat and a nursery for fish.
These ecosystem services have been valued at more than $7m a year, and the US Army engineers have prepared a conceptual coastal protection plan that, at a cost of an estimated $20-30m, could extend the life of the settlement. The study was based on conservative estimates of sea level rise, and the researchers say a higher rise is likely if humans fail to take action to reduce carbon emissions.
“The US Army Corps of Engineers recognises that climate change is upon us and that adaptation to climate change is ‘not optional’. The Tangier Islands and the Town are running out of time, and if no action is taken, the citizens of Tangier may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA,” the scientists conclude. – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.