From Virginia to Alaska, communities are sinking into rising seas

From Virginia to Alaska, communities are sinking into rising seas
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The tiny island community of Tangier, Virginia is rapidly sinking into the ocean due to climate change. But Tangier’s peril is not unique. Dozens of U.S. communities, especially in Alaska, face similar near-term threats from rising seas.

Tangier has a compelling story. Its 460 residents live in a neat cluster of homes surrounded by the cerulean waters of Chesapeake Bay. Commercial fishing, especially for coveted blue crab, has been a mainstay of the local economy for generations, and the town is variously described as patriotic, religious, close-knit, and historic. It’s also remote, with the rest of America a (sometimes harrowing) 12-mile boat ride away. 

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That such an idyllic place is slipping into the sea is certainly newsworthy. But so is the community’s quirky reluctance to acknowledge the role of human-caused climate change. Instead, residents blame mere erosion. They also boast that Tangier voted 87 percent for President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos claims he was pressured to sign plea deal Tlaib asking colleagues to support impeachment investigation resolution Trump rips 'Mainstream Media': 'They truly are the Enemy of the People' MORE — who doubts man-made climate change and who recently promised Tangier will be around for “hundreds more” years.

Unfortunately, that’s not what the science says. Instead, it is clear that local geography interacts with rising seas to create erosion rates likely to leave Tangier uninhabitable within a few decades. And that’s only if the increasingly powerful storms now sweeping the Atlantic Ocean don’t eliminate the town sooner.

Except for the attitude on climate science, Tangier’s plight shares similarities with some remote villages in Alaska, where an astonishing 31 communities are also at risk of inundation. At least three villages in far western Alaska — Kivalina, Newtok and Shishmaref — face immediate danger and are already deep into the traumatic realization that they must relocate. 

Like Tangier, the Alaskan villages host about 500 residents each, with low-lying homes clustered beside the water. They are quaint in their own fashion, with kids playing on narrow snow-swept streets and huskies barking from atop wooden doghouses. These, too, are remote, tight-knit communities where doors go unlocked at night and people hold deep connections to the sea, which has provided fish, seal and other essential foods for more generations than even the watermen of Tangier can claim. 

Also like Tangier, erosion is the face of climate change in western Alaska. The rapid disappearance of vast areas of sea ice has exposed communities to severe loss of land. Storms now gobble at the shore, threatening vital infrastructure that includes airstrips, drinking water, homes, and schools. Melting permafrost and rising seas exacerbate the problem.

Another similarity is the desire for federal assistance. In Tangier, residents are celebrating a late September deal to spend $2.6 million in state and federal money to shield the island’s harbor with a jetty, long, narrow structure jutting out from the shore that protects a coastline from the currents and tides.

A jetty is far shy of the sea wall residents want the government to build around their entire island, but hopefully it will fare better than a similarly priced wall built with federal dollars in Kivalina in 2006, which was quickly torn open by a storm.

Alaska’s most at-risk villages now put their federal dollars toward relocation rather than walls or other temporary patches. In 2018, Congress earmarked $15 million to help Newtok move to higher ground. And the Alaska legislature recently appropriated $50 million to begin relocating Kivalina, which lies 1,000 miles northwest of Anchorage.

The funding is just a fraction of the estimated $100 million to $400 million each Alaska village would cost to move. It is also within range of the nearly $50 million Congress recently committed to relocating the small Louisiana community of Isle de Jean Charles, also at immediate risk of drowning.

From Tangier to Kivalina, residents also share worries that their histories or cultures will disappear. But while Tangier residents will ultimately assimilate into nearby communities, the same may not be true of Alaska’s genuinely remote villages, where language, diet and traditions are sewn to the land through millennia of life in the Arctic. 

One last parallel to consider is this autumn’s dangerous weather. In the Arctic, it is another historically warm season, meaning the ice will again form late, disrupting centuries-old hunting practices and exposing the land to more erosion. And in Tangier, remnants of the unnaturally strong Hurricane Michael recently brought heavy rain and high winds, reminders of their own precarious state. 

The stories provide real-world context for the recent United Nations climate report, which urges “rapid” and “unprecedented” reductions in carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change in the years ahead.

Tim Lydon has worked on the public lands in the West and Alaska for three decades, in both commercial guiding and federal lands management. His is the author of “Passage to Alaska, Two Months Sea Kayaking the Inside Passage.” Follow him @TimLydonAK.