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Convinced erosion, not climate change, threatens their island, a community grapples with an uncertain future

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island

Earl Swift
Dey Street Books
2018
448 pp.
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Tangier Island, located in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, is one of the mainstays of the region’s blue crab fishery. No location on the small island is more than 5 feet above sea level, and two-thirds of its land mass has been lost since 1850. Much of its upland is being converted to tidal marsh as sea-level rise accelerates while the land subsides at one of the highest rates in the mid-Atlantic region. In 2015, Schulte et al. argued that without government action, the citizens of Tangier Island “may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA” (1). It is anticipated that the island may become uninhabitable within 50 years and, given more recent updates in anticipated rates of sea-level rise, perhaps within 25 years.

Earl Swift picks up this theme in Chesapeake Requiem, warning that Tangier Island might be America’s first climate casualty. Swift spent a great deal of time there between December 2015 and October 2017, documenting how the island and its people were responding to climate change. This book is a chronicle of what he learned about the lives of Tangier Islanders and about their history, culture, and beliefs, set within the context of what is known about the likely fate of this vulnerable, isolated island.

Swift paints vivid portraits of both the natural environment and the individuals and institutions of this close-knit community, now fewer than 500 in number. Most residents depend on the fishery for their livelihood. Many share an ancestry on the island going back generations, and most share a deep Christian faith, a strict moral code, and a commitment to hard work in a challenging environment. As they observe rapid changes in the landscape around them, the islanders fear the loss of the land they call home, and they ask and pray for both government assistance and divine intervention to forestall what most scientists regard as virtually inevitable.

Swift’s account of his time on the island is roughly chronological, interspersed with passages recounting the island’s history and sections that cite the scientific literature about the ongoing geologic evolution of the bay, predicted trends in sea-level rise, and the life cycle of the blue crab. He demonstrates a deep affection and admiration for the Tangier Islanders, who are often cantankerous but whom he also describes as “warm, loving, and generous” and “remarkably resilient, hardworking, and courageous.” As he illustrates in one of the more harrowing and moving episodes recounted in the book, they are even willing to risk their lives for one another.

ALAN GIGNOUX/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

The waters on which many residents depend for crab fishing may soon render Tangier Island uninhabitable.

One of the enduring mysteries documented in this book is how social and religious attitudes on Tangier Island and elsewhere have become so entwined with an overt refusal to believe the scientific evidence in support of the rapidly accelerating human impact on climate and sea-level rise. As Swift reveals, Tangier Islanders understand the effect of wind and waves on erosion but steadfastly maintain that human-induced climate change and sea-level rise are not real. Those he interviews believe that a government-funded seawall would save their island.

Swift clearly does believe the science. He points out that thousands of coastal communities in the United States (and many more around the world) either are or will soon be at risk and that it is both physically and economically impossible to save them all. He suggests that how we choose to respond to Tangier Island will say much about what we hold important.

Recent news reports suggest that Tangier Island may be in line for a government-funded coastal protection project (2). The previous administration awarded funding to relocate the “climate refugees” of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana (3). Looking forward, such decisions will need to be based on an understanding of the rate and consequences of sea-level rise and of the cumulative costs and trade-offs that are involved when multiple communities are threatened (4).

This book offers a well-rounded portrait of a rural community both dependent on and threatened by its natural environment—and a description of a problem that unfortunately will become commonplace over the coming decades.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this review criticized the book for failing to include maps depicting the layout of Tangier Island and its position within the Chesapeake Bay. While absent from the galley proofs from which the reviewer was working, the final book includes maps that meet both of these descriptions.

References

  1. D. M. Schulte et al., Sci. Rep. 5, 17890 (2015)

  2. T. Dietrich, Daily Press, 24 May 2018

  3. M. I. Stein, Wired 25 January 2018

  4. J. Moore, L. Acker, “Recurrent flooding, sea level rise, and the relocation of at-risk communities: Case studies from the Commonwealth of Virginia” (Virginia Coastal Policy Center, 2018).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD 21250, USA.