Virginia’s Tangier Island is rapidly disappearing. Rising sea levels are exacerbating erosion and flooding, and could make the speck of land in the Chesapeake Bay uninhabitable within the next few decades. For years, island residents, policy makers and others have debated whether to attempt to save the island or relocate its small community elsewhere. But time to decide is running out, says David Schulte, a marine biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Crucially, that choice will signal how other groups most at risk from climate change, “which are often Native American, minority or low-income such as the isolated fishing community of Tangier, will have their needs addressed — or ignored,” Schulte and his colleague Zehao Wu write in a new study.

The island’s sole town, Tangier, is located on three upland ridges that have largely been protected from coastal erosion. By analyzing aerial photographs of the area from 1967 to 2019, Schulte and Wu, a field researcher at Biogenic Solutions Consulting in Newport News, Va., found that nearly 62 percent of the ridges have been lost to sea level rise. What’s left will convert completely to a wetland by 2051 — about a decade earlier than previously thought — the researchers report November 8 in Frontiers in Climate.

researcher Zehao Wu standing in a road at sunset

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