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Dire Warnings About The Future Of Maryland's Smith Island (Part Two)

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Looking north onto the Bay from Ewell, the island's main harbor.
Jonathan Wilson
Looking north onto the Bay from Ewell, the island's main harbor.

Most people on Smith Island believe that scientists are exaggerating about how dire the danger of seal level rise and storm surges are to the island's future.

"When my Dad was younger, they said, 'In 50 years, this place will be gone,'" says 16-year-old Rebekah Kitching. "My dad's 52. It never happened. I mean, I don't think we'll ever wash away — we are washing away a little bit at a time — and I don't think it's really as bad as they make it seem. I really don't."

Residents say during Super Storm Sandy, for example, Smith Island actually fared better than the mainland town of Crisfield, in which more than 300 homes and businesses were damaged.

Only two homes suffered significant damage on the island, and native Allen Marsh says ocean waters can simply roll over the island and drain away quickly.

"We make out better than a lot of places because there's nowhere to hold the surge — the surge just goes on by — passes us," Marsh says. "We make out as good as any community does."

But travel west and start talking with climate scientists and state officials about Smith Island, and you'll quickly get the sense that residents on the island are fighting against the current when it comes to the fate of their home.

That's because while the island may not technically be sinking, there's an almost universal scientific consensus that the ocean's waters are rising.

The latest report from the University of Maryland, prepared for Gov. Martin O'Malley, calls for policy makers to prepare for a rise of more than 2 feet by the year 2050, and a rise of nearly 4 feet by the end of the century. Most of Smith Island is just 3 feet above sea level.

Zoe Johnson is the program manager for climate change policy at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. She stresses that the state has no plans to move Smith Island residents off their island, and says the state wants to help residents live safely on the island for as long as possible. But she also says the state has to learn from the past.

"Understanding historically what has happened with some of our island communities sort of foreshadows some of the decisions that may be coming down the road in the years to come," says Johnson. "And it may be 20 years, 50 years, we don't know," Johnson says. "But a decision to move a community is something that needs to happen from within that community."

Johnson says in the past two centuries or so, the waters in and around the Chesapeake Bay have reclaimed 13 islands, several of which were populated.

Professor Link says though it's hard for island communities to accept, their homelands might as well be temporary structures when it comes to Mother Nature's timeline.

"In Mother Nature's eyes they are expendable, dynamic resources," Link says. "They commonly come and go."


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