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Sinking Island, Rising Sea. Photo by Chris Kennan
Sinking Island, Rising Sea. Photo by Chris Kennan

The Disappearing Island – Tangier Island

Tangier Island, Virginia is constantly in motion. Well…from a geographic perspective, not from a lifestyle perspective. The locals like life quiet and simple in a magical old world style. The island itself however, is at the mercy of the currents of the Chesapeake Bay. And a good deal more.

Glaciers some 17,000 years ago scooped Chesapeake Bay into being. The islands of the Chesapeake are alluvial, coastal plains silt and sand river-carried into the bay, borne and deposited by Bay currents. What once was given is constantly being taken away. Tangier Island is shrinking, giving itself back to the Bay to be deposited somewhere else. Only partially protected from beach-robbing hurricanes and high tides by a strip of sand and salt marshes locals call the Uppards, some parts of Tangier Island are losing as much as 15 feet of land to the sea each year. So did and does the Uppards. The last population left that narrowing strip after a 1929 hurricane.

The locals understand this constant flux of course. Tangier Island has been settled since the late seventeenth century and before that, Pocomoke Indians used it as a summer retreat. Change is one of the things islanders can count on. Losing ground more rapidly because of reduced protection from the smaller Uppards, and because of the subsidence of the glacially formed bay floor, residents observe the evidence as each year the shoreline retreats, taking more of their beach and yards, revealing the arrowheads of previous inhabitants.

At least one more ancient event contributes to the Bay waters’ encroachment on the island beaches. Some 35,000,000 (yep, that’s million) years ago, a comet or asteroid-like bolide crashed into what would become the southern part of the Chesapeake Bay. The impact crater, covering an area as large as Rhode Island and as deep as the Grand Canyon, was discovered in 1983, buried under 1,000 feet of silt, sand and clay. Named the Exmore Crater, the hole affects the area water supply and the shoreline, reported Hillary Mayell in a November, 2001 National Geographic article. “The land is sinking,” said Mayell, “adding to the sea level rise in that area.”

“Core samples drilled in 2005-06 from the bolide, show it was more than a mile wide and moving faster than the speed of sound when it crashed through several hundred feet of water and several thousand feet of mud and sediment, cracking and tilting the sea beds,” said David Powars, a hydrologist for the US Geological Survey. Presenting a paper at the 2010 Geological Society of America annual meeting in Boston, Powars revealed “The bolide fractured the bedrock to at least a depth of 7 miles. It created a flash of evaporating ocean and a plume of ejected bedrock in a towering cloud 30 miles high. Debris scattered as far as the Continental Shelf off the coast of New Jersey. That,” he said, “was a big hit!”

Added colleague, Wylie C. Poag, “Impact aftermath created local darkness, acid rain, fallout of rocks and dust particles, abrupt Earth cooling and climate change. Wildfires raged up and down the coast killing off both plants and animals.”

Still compacting, the crater lowers area land surface while glacial melt increases ocean volume. USGS fact sheet 102-98 says “sea levels rise at the mouth of the Chesapeake an average of four millimeters per year (1.3 feet per century). Tide gauges for the Chesapeake and mid-Atlantic coast show rates of sea level rise at twice that of world-wide averages.”

Nonetheless, while the sun is shining, the locals of Tangier Island are working. You wouldn’t know it by a quick gander down the few streets holding the homes of some 700 inhabitants because Tangier Island economy is generated by watermen supplying the constant demand for Maryland blue crab. First evidence is the floating crab shacks surrounded with stacks of emptied crab pots visible any time you come into the harbor. In this trade, there are no “days off.” You tend your crab pots no matter what Mother Nature throws at you.

The other much smaller part of the economy is tourism and the island is well worth a visit to enjoy the down home hospitality. Don’t put it off too long or it might not be there.

 

VISITING THE ISLAND:
Parks Marina has visiting boats of all sizes. It is not uncommon to see a 100-footer slide in there, as owner/dock master Milton Parks claims a draft of over 10 feet in some deep water slips. When the current is running, there’s a pretty good cross-current right up to the slips. Experience notes it’s best if you can arrange to arrive and leave near slack water.

The marina is aptly described as quiet. Do call ahead, as they only have 25 transient slips and things can get busy on popular weekends. (757-891-2581)

Arguably known as the best location in the world to find a softshell crab sandwich, the island offers a couple restaurant and Bed and Breakfast choices. Take that “couple” part seriously. There aren’t too many choices BUT you can’t go wrong. Just pick and enjoy.

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