For over twenty years, Virginia-based journalist Earl Swift has been writing about Tangier Island, a tiny slip of land in the Chesapeake Bay several miles from mainland Virginia. Most of the island’s men make their living catching blue crab, while the women run restaurants, the inn, and the grocery store. It’s one of the most isolated spots in America, and one of the most conservative. Eighty-seven percent of Tangier Island’s voters cast ballots for Trump in 2016.
That voting record might seem ironic considering that the community is also one of America’s most imperiled thanks to climate change. Since 1850, Tangier has lost almost 70 percent of its land mass due to sea level rise and other environmental factors. The people of Tangier are poised to be among America’s first climate refugees.
In his forthcoming book, Chesapeake Requiem: a Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, Swift describes the year he spent with the islanders to learn about why their island is sinking and what—if anything—can be done about it. He’s not hopeful for their future.
With a population of just 450 and dwindling, state and federal governments haven’t made the island’s future a priority, dragging their feet on granting the funding needed to build a flood management system. The islanders seem frustrated, but not panicked. Most don’t believe that sea-level rise is a real threat and seem to think they have longer than they do. Swift figures they have another 20 to 25 years tops.
His book therefore reads as an ode to a people who are disappearing, capturing the ins and out of their everyday lives: the ways they work, speak, fight, make jokes, and vote. Taken together, Swift’s descriptions suggest that Tangier might be one of the most interesting—if strangest—places in the country. And that’s precisely why, he argues, the island deserves saving.
Earther spoke with Swift about the new book. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Earther: Tell me about how you discovered what’s happening to Tangier Island.
Swift: I was a reporter at the Virginian Pilot, the newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia for 21 years, where I found myself assigned to Tangier for various reasons. I forged relationships on the island and became increasingly conscious of what was happening to the place because of climate change. You see, I used to live near the water in Norfolk, where north easterlies and hurricanes would bring the water into my neighborhood. It seemed that no matter how serious the storm, the water came higher each year. I found myself wondering, “If it’s this bad down here in the city, what’s it like on Tangier, where there is nothing keeping the water from coming up over the land?”
Earther: Why is Tangier at risk of disappearing?
Swift: The water is rising all around the world, including in the Chesapeake Bay. But Tangier—and much of the land in the mid-Atlantic and south Chesapeake—is also sinking because of a process called postglacial, or isostatic, rebound.
It’s a by-product of the last Ice Age. Imagine a waterbed. If you push your hand down into it, the water beneath your hand moves to another section where it raises the bed. That’s what happened here. During the last Ice Age, the Arctic and sub-Arctic built up ice sheets so thick and heavy that they compressed the Earth’s surface. That compressed surface pushed down on a gel-like mantle beneath the crust of the Earth, causing the mantle to squirt away from the point of compression. Islands in the South Chesapeake and in the mid-Atlantic resulted from the rise. But now that the ice has melted, the ground has rebounded and the mantle has begun to suck back northward. As the mantle seeps away, the islands sink.
Earther: Tangier is also losing almost 15 feet of shoreline each year because of rising seas and erosion.
Swift: Yes, on average. But one of the confusing things about Tangier’s situation is that its land loss precedes by 200 years any kind of dawning realization that sea level rise is a problem. Tangier’s always lost land, especially on its west side. When a storm hits from the west, and the waves roll in, they don’t climb to a nice peak. Instead they smack right into an escarpment of turf and break it off in huge chunks. If you look at maps from 1850 and compare them with Tangier today, it’s astounding. Mind boggling. Most of the places you could have built a house on back then are now gone.
Earther: Why do you think the phrases “climate change” and “sea level rise” are still met with suspicion on the island?
Swift: First of all, this is a community of old school Christians, many of whom are Biblical literalists. So, selling them on the notion that part of their problem is due to an Ice Age that ended eleven thousand years ago—when their interpretation of scripture tells them that the Earth was created just six thousand years ago—is a tough thing to get them to swallow. Second, they’re accustomed to having scientists tell them things about the blue crab and the bay, about all of the other aspects of the sea that they experience as watermen, and they just don’t agree with it. They’ve come to view scientists in general as book smart, but know-nothings when it comes to the water.
Earther: That helps me to understand why a majority of islanders voted for Trump, a man who says that climate change is a hoax.
Swift: The less I say about that the better, I think. I understand why it happened, but oh boy it’s frustrating.
Earther: Didn’t Tangier’s mayor, James Eskridge, speak to Trump about protecting the island?
Swift: Yep. This is how that happened: Last June, CNN came to the island and did an interview with a bunch of the old timers and [Eskridge]. He wouldn’t say on camera that sea level rise is swallowing the island but he would acknowledge the island is getting smaller because of erosion. He told the interviewer, Jennifer Gray, that they needed a protective wall and that he loved Trump as much as he loved members of his own family. This created a huge sensation over the weekend. CNN’s Twitter feed received a tsunami of comments, the majority saying let the place sink. Trump heard about it and called Eskridge. He apparently told him that Tangier has been there for hundreds of years and will be there for hundreds more. The islanders took that to be really reassuring. But if you look at public reaction, most of the world did not feel the same way.
Earther: Even if Trump had wanted to help them, is it actually possible to implement a flood management system on Tangier?
Swift: Well, if they had a stable population, it would be a lot likelier. But a lot of folks are in their 90s, and in five years there won’t be nearly as many people on the island. [Editor’s note: The median age on Tangier is 54, compared to Virginia’s overall median age of 38. In a town of only 450 people, a loss of even a handful of people is a noticeable percentage of the total population.] There comes a tipping point when a place no longer has a sufficient customer base to keep basic services open and available. For example, in most small towns, if the grocery store shutters its doors, you can get in your car and drive to the next small town over. Well, if the grocery store in Tangier closes, people will leave the island for good, and other businesses will follow. I don’t know where the tipping point for Tangier is, but I know it draws closer with each Tangierman who either leaves the island or dies.
Earther: What surprised you the most about your year on Tangier?
Swift: One of the things that impressed me the most is their willingness to help each other. Last April a crabbing boat got into trouble about six miles to the West of the island where the bay is at its widest. A storm hit, and the boat began to sink. Every able-bodied, male member of the population went out into that storm to try to save the boat’s captain, Ed Charnock, and his son Jason, when they knew the storm was deadly. Whatever failings they might have...they are a community of people that has each other’s backs to a degree that most of us can’t even fathom. The idea that we may lose that makes me really sad. I think we need places like that to bring home who we are at heart.
Earther: Is Tangier a case study in how we will deal with other communities at risk of sea level rise?
Swift: We’re going to face Tangiers by the hundreds in a very few years. This is just a canary in the coal mine. How we deal with Tangier will form how we deal with so many other communities threatened by sea level rise. So, in a way, Tangier forces us to answer some questions: Do you save a place because it’s reflective of the American experience, or because it’s an outlier? This is not a typical American town. It’s one of the weirdest towns in America; it’s a crazy place. But the fact that it exists, I think, enriches all of us.
Chesapeake Requiem: a Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island goes on sale August 7, 2018.
Amy Brady is the deputy publisher of Guernica magazine and the senior editor of the Chicago Review of Books.