Month: October 2014

The Future of Small Islands in the Chesapeake

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Maryland’s Smith Island and Virginia’s Tangier Island, both in the Chesapeake Bay, are rapidly losing land due to sea level rise, erosion and storm damage. I last visited the islands in 2011 for a school field trip. Smith Island seemed to be especially suffering from land loss. Many properties were flooded and front yards covered in standing water. Talking to the residents, many were worried about the rising waters coupled with a disappearing local economy. What little jobs were left revolved around harvesting seafood; most residents have to commute to the mainland for work (Crisfield), while many of the younger generations had moved off the island permanently in search of better prospects.

Tangier Island is struggling with the same land loss issues, although from what I observed, seemed to be a small step ahead of Smith Island. At the time Tangier had a seawall built around the more heavily inhabited part of the island, while Smith Island had no effective means of holding back the encroaching waters. In November of 2012 Tangier was approved state and federal funds to have a jetty built to protect their harbor- a $4.2 million project (source: Washington Post). According to a Bay Journal article released Sunday, Smith Island has recently been awarded funds for a similar project. Smith Island will be getting $15 million from the federal government’s Sandy relief fund. Money will be split between financing a breakwater project, jetty and dock repair on the island. Will the money save these Chesapeake islands from sea level rise and land loss, or is it just delaying the inevitable?

Ancient Oyster Consumption in the Chesapeake Region

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I stumbled upon an article from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) on the Native American’s precolonial consumption of oysters that I wanted to share. Researchers from SERC and Natural History have been looking at ancient waste from a Native American tribe- the Piscataway Indians- along the Rhode River (in Edgewater, Maryland on the SERC grounds). These waste piles are filled with broken pottery, artifacts, and oyster shell remains, telling us a little about what kinds of tools were used, and food consumed by local tribe members. Looking at the past 3,200 years, this group of researchers found a 950 year gap, between 800 B.C. to 150 C.E., where no oyster shells dating from that time can be found.

Researchers have several theories about this gap- speculating on a sampling error or a decline in shellfish aquaculture during this time. Sea level rise and the sinking of the land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed may also have contributed to the gap. Waste piles containing missing oyster shells may have been in areas that have eroded or been inundated with water due to sea level rise that has already occurred. Interesting to think how sea level rise in this area impacts historical and anthropological studies, as well as a variety of environmental issues.

The official paper, “Shell Middens, Cultural Chronologies, and Coastal Settlement on the Rhode River Sub-Estuary of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA,” which appeared in Geoarchaeology in August, discusses the methods used to date the remains from the waste piles and goes into more technical detail on plausible explanations for the 950 year gap. I don’t have the access to be able to share the full report here, but there is a nice summary of the findings on the SERC blog.

How much is a polluted Chesapeake Bay costing us?

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What are the benefits to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay? I usually focus on the biological and ecological benefits to watershed cleanup, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been looking at economic benefits. They released a report earlier this month estimating that cleaning up the Bay could result in earnings of $130 billion dollars each year for states in the watershed. On the other hand, failing to enforce pollution diets or follow the 2010 Clean Water Blueprint, will result in billions of lost dollars in the region.

The report estimates the economic benefits from watershed cleanup and regulation will improve recreational opportunities; support local businesses, restaurants and watermen; and reduce risks associated with flooding, air pollution and climate instability. The report looks at the savings possible for each state involved, and for the overall watershed.