Twelve miles from either coast of the Chesapeake Bay sits a small island in danger of disappearing.
Tangier Island, Virginia, is one of the most isolated and extraordinary places in the continental US. But the island sits just 4 feet or so above sea level, and a 2015 report suggests little of it will be left in 50 years.
President Donald Trump, however, disagrees. The Daily Times of Salisbury, Maryland, reported last year that after Trump saw a CNN report about Tangier Island, the president called Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge to tell him he shouldn’t worry about a rise in sea levels.
“He said, ‘Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more,'” Eskridge told The Daily Times.
“Chesapeake Requiem,” a book by Earl Swift set to be released later this summer, paints a timely portrait of the 200-year-old crabbing community as it faces extinction from rising water levels. Swift spent the past two years with residents on the island, which he says could become the US’s “first climate casualty.”
The photos below show how serious the problem has become there.
Christian Storm contributed to this story.
Tangier Island has been losing ground to erosion for hundreds of years.
But the combination of rising sea levels and more severe weather — both augmented by climate change — have increased the rate of land loss.
Records indicate that in the mid-1800s, Tangier Island encompassed about 2,060 acres. It was home to watermelon farms, grazing cows, and a variety of plant life.
But since 1850, over 66% of Tangier’s landmass has disappeared underwater.
Research suggests Tangier is losing 9 acres of land a year to erosion and rising tides.
“We have a pretty high degree of certainty that things are going to get wetter and wetter,” Carlton Hershner Jr., a climate-change scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, told The Associated Press in 2013. “Not to be a bearer of bad news for Tangier, but that would suggest that sometime in the next 50 to 100 years the island would basically be underwater.”
Just 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island is home to more than 500 full-time residents, down from over 1,000. The total continues to drop every year.
The island is reachable only by boat — it’s a 1-1/2-hour ferry ride from the coast. That keeps the place mostly closed off from the rest of the world.
Some islanders go years without seeing the mainland, getting supplies from the mail boat that arrives in the harbour every day.
Most of the men on the island work as commercial crabbers and oyster fishermen — or watermen — and send their catch to the mainland by boat.
But being a waterman is becoming increasingly difficult. In an effort to prevent overfishing, Virginia placed a moratorium on new crabbing licenses, and other restrictions have reduced the length of fishing seasons.
Ricky Laird, 44, was born on Tangier Island and showed the Business Insider photographer Christian Storm around the island in 2014.
“You don’t have to worry about traffic jams and murders, child molesters, rapists, and thieves,” Laird said. “You can leave your doors open. You don’t have to lock anything.”
Laird and other locals share a thick accent that’s equal parts Southern twang and Irish brogue. Vowels are extended to multiple syllables, making certain words hard to understand for outsiders.
“Tangier’s laid-back,” Laird said. “It’s a nice place, and everything’s reasonable here.”
One of the most striking signs of the rapidly disappearing island is the Uppards, a beautiful area on Tangier’s north end, where multiple families once lived year-round.
Today, the Uppards has almost succumbed to the rising water levels, turning into a swampy wetland.
Major portions are submerged, reachable only by skiff.
A solitary dilapidated mobile trailer on the beach is one of the few signs that humans ever lived there.
Laird recalled playing with his friends in the Uppards and hunting ducks there with his father. But despite the stark scene, he doesn’t seem worried.
“The island ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Laird said. “They talk about erosion, but it’s been here forever, and it ain’t gone nowhere in forever.”
Because of the island’s low elevation and lack of space, tombstones are on the front lawns of the homes on Tangier.
In the photo below, from 2017, a tombstone lies submerged at the water’s edge in the Uppards part of Tangier Island.
Europeans, led by Capt. John Smith, first explored Tangier Island in 1608, though it had been a spot for the Pocomoke Nation long before that.
Legend has it that John Crockett – still a common surname on the island – was the first to inhabit Tangier full time when he arrived with his eight sons in 1686.
In the 19th century, Tangier became home to annual Methodist meetings. It has been a religious stronghold ever since.
The island shuts down every Sunday morning and once denied Hollywood filmmakers permission to shoot the PG-13 Kevin Costner movie “Message in a Bottle” there because of the script’s mentions of swearing, sex, and drinking.
Tangier is dry; booze is unavailable for purchase.
Even if the island survives the next 100 years, residents of Tangier wonder whether anyone will still want to live there in the future.
“I’d like to be able to do this for the rest of my life,” said Laird’s 24-year-old son, Nick. “It’s kind of scary to think you might not be able to.”
Nick is following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a waterman.
Years ago, this career path was the norm for boys on the island. But nowadays, Nick is in the minority. Many young people leave Tangier — some for college, others for the military, and several to find partners, since romance can be difficult on such a small island.
When Business Insider spoke with Laird, he said the fourth-grade class had just one boy.
“A lot of kids nowadays, it just doesn’t appeal to them,” Nick said. “They see mainstream culture, and they say, ‘Hey, I think I’d like to move off, get a car, get a house, go to the mall.'”
Tangier’s residents are mostly Republican — a majority voted for Trump in 2016. But the president’s comments suggest he’s unlikely to help the island face the challenges climate change has created.
To persuade some of the town’s residents to take action, a group of Republican climate activists went to the island in August.
“We’ll talk to everybody,” Eskridge said. “But they’re not going to change many minds here.”
According to Eskridge, most residents reject climate change. Many would prefer to receive a new seawall than consider the long-term effects of carbon emissions on sea-level rise.
In recent years, Tangier Island has become a poster child of the nation’s climate crisis.
This approach to climate change is not unique to Tangier. About one-third of Americans do not support regulating pollution from coal-fired power plants, which are large drivers of carbon emissions.
To many residents of Tangier, however, the threat of their island vanishing still seems like a far-off future.
“They say in about 100 years this island’s gonna be disappeared, but I’m not going to college — I’m going to work on the water here,” one young Tangier Island resident told Business Insider in 2014. “I’m not going to be living in another 100 years either.”
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