I wish Mike Scott could have sat with Al Gore when the former Vice President talked climate change and the Chesapeake at a recent CNN Town Hall with Tangier Island mayor James ‘Ooker’ Eskridge.
I like Gore. He has a superb command of the big picture with rising sea levels and other threats of our changing climate. But scientists like Salisbury University’s Dr. Scott are more skilled in making sense of the important nuances and complexities of such global phenomena to Bay watermen and landowners.
You’ll be hearing Scott, a geographer and an expert in environmental hazards, in the documentary, High Tide in Dorchester, to be released in late fall by filmmakers Sandy Cannon Brown and David Harp, and me.
The film focuses tightly on sea level rise and Dorchester, Maryland’s largest and lowest-lying county; a place where the future still awaiting other Chesapeake coastal areas is playing out right now.
If he’d been at that broadcast, Scott could have done a better job of finding common ground and mutual understanding with Mr. Eskridge, who believes plain old erosion, not anything humans are doing to climate, is what’s threatening his Bay island.
“I’ve lived there 65 years and I just don’t see (sea level rising),” he told Gore.
The whole Gore-Tangier-CNN broadcast sprang from a phone call earlier this summer that brought Mayor Eskridge in early from fishing his peeler pots (peelers being crabs about to shed and become soft, and more valuable).
The caller was President Donald Trump, who’d heard of Tangier’s plight: battered by erosion that will soon spell its demise if it can’t find an estimated $25-$30 million to bulwark its Bay shore with rock. The President knew that the island of some 400, with a culture harking back to 17th century England, had voted nearly 90 per cent for him last November.
“I was upset that CNN portrayed (Eskridge) as this sort of pro-Trump nut-job,” Scott says. “The mayor is not wrong that Tangier has an erosion problem. It’s happening very quickly and is very noticeable.
“But there’s really two processes going on, and they are not separate.” The second process Scott refers to is sea level rise, propelled by a warmer climate that is melting ice, and by subsidence of land around the Bay, sinking back to its original contours that were bulged upward by the immense weight of glaciers during the last Ice Age.
Add to that the thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm, and potentially a climate-induced slowing of the Gulf Stream that will back up more seawater in the Chesapeake.
Rising sea levels make erosion worse. But Scott’s not at all surprised that Tangier’s mayor said of sea level rise that he “just didn’t see it.”
Sea level rise at this point, unlike erosion, “is happening very slowly,” coming up mere inches throughout Eskridge’s lifetime.
“It’s been slight enough up to now that it’s actually very difficult to measure unless you’re taking very precise scientific measurements,” Scott says.
But the overwhelming scientific consensus, he continues, is that earth’s temperatures have reached the point where a measurable acceleration in sea level is underway. Around the Chesapeake that’s likely to add two feet or more to everyday tides by 2050.
The forecasts for 2100 are less certain because we can’t tell how fast the massive ice sheets of Antarctica will melt. But estimates foresee everyday tides five and a half feet above present, “and that’s probably on the low end. . . every time we look at it, it seems our estimates are too low,” Scott says.
A couple wrinkles, Scott points out, may disguise the coming impact further.
First, it is quite possible for waters locally to shallow up as seas rise. In our filming we’ve had reports of this—some quite dramatic—in Dorchester County. The sediment eroding from shorelines and marshes that are disintegrating has to go somewhere, and it may fill in channels and other places where currents carry it.
The larger complication, Scott says, “is that sea level rise is not linear.” In other words, it isn’t going to happen like a steady inch a year, one plus one, and so on. That would be relatively easy to respond to because we could say with precision where average tides would be at any point in the future.
Unfortunately the path to two, three, five or more feet of daily tide around the Bay is going to resemble a curve that steepens (increases tidal levels) as it progresses.
“The trouble with an increasing curve is that for a while, things will seem as if they’re okay, but then the rate’s going to really increase and you’re going to lose the ability to adjust to it,” he says.
Helping localities around the Chesapeake adjust is where Scott’s passion lies; and he says we’re still at a point on the curve where we can act reasonably and cost-effectively versus reacting to crises, expensively.
“This (Delmarva) Peninsula is very precious to me and to my family. . . we want to preserve it for our children and we can do that if we are honest with what’s happening and with how we can try to respond,” he says.
He finds most people don’t care too much about why the tides and the erosion are getting worse, nor are most overly interested with the national and international politics of climate change—who’s a denier, who’s not.
“They want to know what is going to happen to them and what they can do about it,” Scott says. For many, the real threat won’t come in their lifetimes, and they aren’t likely to pay tens of thousands of dollars to jack up their houses.
The key, he says, is to honestly acknowledge the threat and install public policies that over time that guide “the way that development takes place, rearrange the way people build their homes, the way roads are maintained.
“And as we lose marshes we are going to need spaces on the landward edge for them to move into. . . We’re going to need to buy the development rights to such places from the people who own them now. . . a very appropriate response to sea level rise.”
In places like Dorchester County, he thinks, “if we can get ahold of this in the next five to seven years, we have time to fix it that way. If we wait, then we will be in crisis mode and things are going to have to happen in a very shocking and upsetting way. . . “
“What we usually try to encourage folks that live in the lowest-lying, erosion-prone areas is, ‘don’t look at the depth of the water. Just start keeping track of the number of days a year you’re getting nuisance flooding, flooding in the streets. . . it won’t take long to figure out. Two or three years, you’ll see an increased number of days where you have nuisance flooding. We track this sort of thing and we have seen it increasing for the past two decades.”
As for Tangier Island, it doesn’t make much difference whether Mayor Eskridge and his townspeople vote yea or nay on closing coal fired plants to reduce long-term buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Tangier needs rock, millions of dollars worth, pretty soon, and no change in policies is going to change that.
A good seawall is no dike, which would cost hundreds of millions and isn’t gonna happen. President Trump’s assurances to Eskridge that his island would persist for “hundreds more years” are even less likely to come true.
But a seawall would buy another generation or two of Tangiermen time to continue the island’s unique culture and heritage, time enough for hundreds of thousands of us to visit and enjoy that.