Tangier Island, a marshy, low-lying island of about 1.2 square miles in the Chesapeake Bay, would seem to be Virginia’s poster child for sea-level rise. The island, according to Wikipedia, has lost about two-thirds of its land mass since 1850. There had been a universal belief, I thought, that the island is headed for oblivion as sea level continues to creep higher, whether at the same slow-but-steady rate that has held over the past century or at the accelerated rate postulated by those who hew to the most pessimistic global warming scenarios.
But the assumption of a rising sea level is not embraced universally. The mayor of Tangier, an incorporated town that serves the island’s 500 souls, attributes the island’s shrinkage to erosion, not sea level rise.
The views of James “Ooker” Eskridge gained national exposure when he appeared in a CNN Town Hall devoted to Al Gore’s documentary, “”An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” and said to the former vice president, “”I’m not a scientist, but I’m a keen observer. If sea level rise is occurring, why am I not seeing signs of it?”
US News provides a few additional details:
Eskridge, 58, a lifelong waterman who harvests crabs from the bay, was among the 87 percent of voters in this deeply spiritual community who supported [President] Trump.
When CNN aired a segment on Tangier’s plight in June, Eskridge told meteorologist Jennifer Gray: “I love Trump as much as any family member I got.”
Eskridge and others believe that erosion, not sea-level rise, is the real threat because they can see it. And they believe infrastructure, such as a sea wall around the island, can save it.
“The erosion that’s taking place you can almost see every week, every month for sure,” he told The Associated Press in May.
During his interview with CNN, Eskridge said: “Donald Trump, if you see this … whatever you can do, we welcome any help you can give us.”
A colorful fellow, Eskridge makes good news copy. But the media seem to be treating him as curiosity. And perhaps for good reason. From all the evidence I have seen — and you don’t have to be a Global Warming alarmist to believe it — the global sea level has been rising at a consistent rate for as long as it has been measured (although the rate has varied somewhat locally)
On the other hand, Eskridge does live on Tangier Island, and he he knows the local waters intimately. No one seems to have asked him why he thinks erosion, not sea level rise, is behind the island’s diminution. What evidence does he have? Perhaps he knows something that the scientists don’t. Perhaps there are dynamics they have failed to consider. Someone ought to ask him. He may have no idea what he’s talking about. But then again, maybe he does.
As for the mayor’s proposed solution — building a sea wall around the populated portion of the island — that’s an entirely different matter. Building a wall (it sounds very Trumpian, doesn’t it?) might sound like a great idea if you’re a Tangier resident and someone else is paying for it. But someone must ask, how much would it cost compared to the economic benefit of saving the island’s 500 or so residents from inundation?
I’ll concede that there is some sentimental value in saving a community that has been in place since the 1770s and has preserved a unique dialect dating back to the 18th century or earlier. The island is a historic artifact of times gone by. But is Tangier more special than any other endangered community that can trace its roots back a hundred years or more? We cannot escape the reality that our society has finite resources and that any sum spent on, say, preserving Tangier Island, cannot be spent on a project helping someone else.
It’s safe to say that I’m dissatisfied with the rigor of thinking all the way around.