Virginia Controversies

Chesapeake Requiem

Continuing from our last in-person meeting, where we discussed the removal of Emery Dam and the various ways people respect and live off the Rappahannock River, this week’s reading contains a much more macabre environmental tale. Tangier Island is a place that I feel like people have heard of, especially if they are from the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. Personally, I’m from the Middle Peninsula and have never been to Tangier Island, but I have been aware of the environmental situation there for many years. To put it simple, the island is sinking below sea level. This is something that has been happening gradually over many, many years. It’s not even the first island it’s happened to, yet the people remain steadfast and stubborn. This is understandable, since many of the people who live on the island can trace their lineage back to colonial times. Not only that, but they have also developed a unique cultural dialect and most of the island are seafarers who profit from fishing and crabbing. Tourism is also a profitable industry, but the constant loss of landmass and the barrage of hurricanes in the past twenty years has likely limited that.

The situation on Tangier is eventually going to get to a point where the people will have to leave. By that point, those who have thus far refused to leave will become displaced persons due to environmental circumstance and/or disaster. One of the major reasons Tangier is sinking is because the island is barely above sea level. This can be attributed to climate change, but the islanders seem to believe it is either due to erosion or signs of a biblical apocalypse. Climate change and erosion are the two likely factors. As sea level rise due to the melting of glacial ice caps, more and more of the island becomes wetlands and starts to erode into the Bay. It’s gotten so bad that the Army Corps of Engineers estimates the island will be uninhabitable in approximately fifty years. This makes Tangier a significant place of study because it is likely to become the first place in the US to produce a permanent refugee crisis due to environmental disaster.

One more thing I wanted to discuss about Tangier Island is less about the environmental situation, and more about the people. Tangier is home to a predominantly white community. There are little to no minorities to be found on the island, despite the island’s historical connections to local Native American tribes. Religion is prominent, as is the conservative mindset. The closed population has undoubtedly led to inbreeding, which is something I hear often. There’s actually a study that talks about this, but I’m curious to hear what other people may have to say about it.

1. What are some ways Tangier could be preserved for longer than the estimated fifty years? I believe there was talk of a sea wall at some point (like in New Orleans) or maybe a dike (like in the Netherlands). Do you think this is a feasible solution? And would the county, state, and/or federal government be willing to invest in something like that?

2. Given the growing concerns over climate change, do you think Tangier’s ecosystem can be repaired? Is something like what we saw with the Rappahannock River possible? Or is the situation too far gone? 3. What are everyone’s impressions of Tangier Island? How do you feel about entire swaths of the island sitting underwater (i.e., finding graves, skulls, bone fragments, etc.)? If you were in the same position as many of the Tangierians, would you stay? Why or why not?


Mathias, Rasika A., Carol A. Bickel, Terri H. Beaty, Gloria M. Petersen, Jacqueline B. Hetmanski, Kung-Yee Liang, and Kathleen C. Barnes. “A Study of Contemporary Levels and Temporal Trends in Inbreeding in the Tangier Island, Virginia, Population Using Pedigree Data and Isonymy.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 112, no. 1 (May 2000): 29–38.;2-5″>10.1002/(sici)1096-8644(200005)112:1<29::aid-ajpa4>;2-5.

Schulte, David M., Karin M. Dridge, and Mark H. Hudgins. “Climate Change and the Evolution and Fate of the Tangier Islands of Chesapeake Bay, USA.” Scientific Reports 5, no. 1 (December 2015).

Swift, Earl. Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. HarperCollins, 2018.

One Comment

  • Sellers

    I’m especially struck by the unique culture and what its loss can represent (a sort of localism we find less and less in a globalized world). That culture is part of the tourist appeal, though I also think some of that appeal is the sort of “disaster tourism” you find in places like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. One question for me is whether there ought to be a commitment to preserving either, since cultures and environments are inherently unstable, maybe not in the sense of prone to massive disruption but in the sense that they continually change–what is the compelling reason to try to preserve something in a sort of stasis, other than just because it’s unique? Is that worth massive investments to hold back change that in some respects is natural? Beyond feasibility, I’m thinking about rationale…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *