The Mayor of Nowhere at All

June 11, 2018

Few of us these days can claim to have lived in the same location since birth; the average American makes more than 11 moves over a lifetime, with jobs, school, and other changes often sending us clear across the country. Still, there are some people who remain where they started out. A recent article shows that, in at least one case, it’s the place and not the people who are likely to go away.

The article, from the latest issue of the New Yorker, highlights the troubles of a small Virginia island, Tangier, in the Chesapeake Bay. The community has just 460 people, many of whom work in the crabbing industry. The article focuses on James Eskridge, the island’s 60-year-old mayor: “It’s the only place he has ever lived. These days, it appears that he may outlive it.”

The problem is that erosion and other phenomena are slowly devouring the island; since 1850 it has lost about two-thirds of its land, which, as the article explains, is partly caused by glacial rebound—in other words, the island is sinking a couple of millimeters every year. Combined with sea level rise and increasing erosion, the loss of land is accelerating: “Without climate change, the island would have remained above water for perhaps another century; now the cutoff date is only a few decades away, if not sooner.”

Other communities—entire nations, in fact—are threatened by similar changes. Government ministers in Palau have been especially vocal about the fact that their small country, made up of hundreds of tiny islands in the Pacific, is on the front lines. Closer to home, a village on Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles and the town of Newtok, AK, have relocated because of rising waters.

The twist in Tangier’s story is that there is actually something that might be done to save the island, and it’s something most of the residents support. They’d like to see a sea wall built around the perimeter. The Army Corps of Engineers has done a study of Tangier and concluded that building a wall—or, more accurately, extending a wall that already exists—isn’t worth the cost. “There is not a lot of high-value property on Tangier,” a Corps’ spokesperson notes.

For the record, Eskridge, the mayor, is skeptical that climate change is occurring, or that it’s affecting what’s happening on the island, although he does support the wall. He attributes the island’s problems to erosion alone, and he’s critical of conservation and environmental groups that, he says, are blocking projects like the sea wall. He jokes that so many people have visited the island since it started to get publicity for its predicament that one way to get the wall built would be a tourism campaign: “Everybody is welcome to visit Tangier, but you must bring a rock.”

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.