Trump Tells Sinking Island's Mayor Not to Worry About Rising Sea Level

Though it's less than 100 miles from the White House, Tangier Island seems a world away. It has no malls, cars or cell phone service. Some residents don’t leave the island for years, relying on supply boats from the mainland. But this hook-shaped enclave on the Virginia side of the Chesapeake Bay has a problem: It’s disappearing.

At 1.3 square miles, the island is 67 percent smaller than it was in 1850 and loses roughly 15 feet of coastline each year. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned in a 2015 report that Tangier islanders may be “among the first climate change refugees” in the continental U.S.

"We've depended on the Chesapeake Bay for a couple hundred years or more, James Eskridge, the mayor of Tangier, told CNN. "And now it's the Chesapeake Bay that's the greatest threat to our existence."

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A waterman—local slang for crabbers and oyster fishermen—returns home to Tangier Island. (image: Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr)

For decades, researchers have been tracking the island’s steady disappearance. But the Corps’ disturbing prediction that Tangier could be uninhabitable in 50 years inspired a small army of news crews to visit the island and see for themselves. The recent CNN report caught the eye of America’s most powerful media consumer: President Donald Trump.

Less than a week after airing the profile of Tangier, CNN reported that its coverage prompted the president to call Mayor Eskridge at home. Eskridge later described the conversation as genial, but one quote disturbed climate advocates and scientists.

“He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge told the Washington Post. “He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’”

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Mayor James Eskridge (right) points out areas of concern to Col. Paul Olsen, Norfolk District commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr)

Eskridge, who told CNN he loves Trump “as much as any family member I got,” agreed with the president’s assessment and said erosion—not rising seas—poses the greatest threat to the island.

“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he told the Post. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.”

An island on the brink

Despite the varied reactions to Trump’s phone call and Eskridge’s politics, the fact remains that a war of words won’t save Tangier. If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that people respond better to a promise of action than an argument over semantics. And helping islanders protect their homeland is arguably a better use of time and resources than convincing them to use different terminology.

As meteorologist Jennifer Gray paraphrased in her CNN report, the people of Tangier “are sick of being studied and want something done.”

But scientists warn that ignoring sea level rise could lead to an ineffective adaptation plan and say the island will need more than Trump’s “beliefs” to address the undisputable challenges it faces. Among them:

  • Tangier’s sandy soil makes its coasts particularly vulnerable to the erosion caused by rising sea levels.  
  • Scientists consider the northern Atlantic coast, from North Carolina to Boston, a “hotspot” for sea-level rise due to changing ocean currents.
  • In Tangier, sea levels rose nine inches over the past 34 years, according to Climate Central’s Surging Seas mapping tool. The island is four feet above sea level at its highest point.
  • The land in the southern Chesapeake Bay is slowly sinking due to geologic process called subsidence, hastening the island’s disappearance.

This combination of factors leaves residents holding their breath during storm season, and some say the Corps’ prediction is almost too optimistic.

"I think it'll be less than 50 years," Carol Pruitt-Moore, a seventh-generation Tangier islander, told USA Today. "We are one storm away from being washed away or being forced to evacuate."

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A woman walks along the eroded coastline of Uppards Island, Virginia. Multiple families once lived here, but it is now an uninhabitable wetland with large swaths completely underwater. (image: Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr)

Sea walls, not words

A one-mile sea wall protects Tangier’s western shore and allows its airport to remain operational. The Corps outlined a $30 million “recommendation plan” to further protect Tangier, but like many small coastal communities, it’s in stiff competition for funding.

“They are in queue with everyone else in the world who is seeking [Army Corps] money in a constrained fiscal environment,” Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a nonprofit devoted to protecting Virginia’s tidal wetlands, told Scientific American.

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A one-mile sea wall protects Tangier Island’s western shore, but experts say more infrastructure is needed to protect the island. (image: Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr)

As larger cities like Miami, New Orleans and New York are increasingly affected by rising seas, islanders are left wondering if their small town of less than 500 people will be deemed worthy of saving.

"If you make the decision that whether or not you save a place is simply a function of head count, then Tangier doesn't have a chance," Earl Swift, who lives on Tangier part-time, told CNN. The Corps will construct a jetty next year to protect Tangier’s harbor, but it will need more money to fortify the entire island.  

Therein lies the rub: How can federal agencies craft a plan to save Tangier if the administration directing them refuses to acknowledge the scope of the problem? And even if a sea wall is funded and constructed, will it be enough to protect the island if the U.S. refuses to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change continues unabated?

If Trump really cares about Tangier as he claims, he will not only earmark funds for a protective infrastructure, but reconsider his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and slash funding for climate adaptation. For now, that appears unlikely.  

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