Enormous cost of relocating US climate refugees from coastal town a stark example for the whole world, researchers warn

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A new study found that Tangier, on Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay has lost 62% its original upland area. This is according to a new study. It will continue to decline over the next 15-30 year, leaving hundreds without income and homes. According to the researchers, it would cost between $250m-$350m to fully restore and protect the town. Tangier is an excellent example of the effects of climate change and continued sea level rise.

All over the globe, the effects of the climate crisis are evident. Research shows that the effects of climate change-related changes such as extreme weather events and extreme droughts in the future are likely to be more severe than previously believed.

According to the IPCC Assessment Report, sea level rise continues to be one of the worst consequences of climate change. Sea level rise can lead to the loss of habitats for animals and plants, as well as more severe hurricanes and other cyclones. It also leads to the loss of land that is habitable for humans. Sea level rise will eventually force people to move to higher ground, resulting in climate change refugees.

The case of Tangier, Tangier Island, Chesapeake Bay (US) is a prominent example of the effects of human-driven sea level rise. Tangier Island, one of the few remaining inhabited islands in Chesapeake Bay, is primarily a fishing community. The population of the town has declined from over 1,100 in 1900 to 436 in 2020. It is made up of three upland hills: Canton, Main and West.

Frontiers in Climate published a new study that found Tangier has lost a large portion of its upland area. It is expected to lose all its remaining land in the next 15-30 year.

"Our study indicates that sea level rise already has a significant impact on a small American town. These Americans, who are the last remaining fishing community in Virginia will soon be forced to move because of climate change," stated David Schulte (College of William and Mary), US.

Schulte's 2015 paper found that Tangier Island lost 67% of its landmass between 1850 and now due to coastal erosion and relative sea level rise. Researchers claimed that the publication of the paper was misinterpreted and that Tangier's land loss was solely due to coastal erosion.

This study is a continuation of the 2015 paper. It aims to assess the effects of sea level rise in Tangier and to dispel misinformation related to the climate crisis that followed the initial study.

How much does it cost to move the entire town?

The researchers used local data on sea level rise to determine the impact of sea level rising on the community. They also compared the upland-to-wetland conversion rate with the rate of population decline to assess the potential impacts.

The results showed that 62% of the town's original upland areas had been lost since 1967. These results showed that if the relative sea level rise continues as predicted, then the year of complete conversion to wetlands for each Ridge is 2033 (West Ridge), 2030 (Main Ridge) and 2050 (Canton Ridge).

"We noticed that the local sea level rise in Chesapeake Bay is higher than the global average and that it is increasing in a similar way to the global mean rate. Schulte explained that the rate at which high ground is converted to wetlands was generally an accelerating trend just like sea level rise.

Researchers also calculated the cost of Tangier's relocation and its cost to restore and protect it. These estimates were based on similar efforts made by the US federal government to save small coastal communities from rising sea levels.

According to the authors, it would take between $250m-$350m to fully restore and protect the town. This estimate includes the necessary actions such as applying protective stone to the shorelines of the island, and raising the three ridges three meters with dredged soil. Oyster reefs are a natural solution that can be cost between $100-$300,000.

If the exodus of people from the island is inevitable, the cost to relocate a town with 436 residents will be between $100m- $200m.

The world needs to wake up

According to the authors, Tangier's population will be zero in 2053. This is similar to the upland-to-wetland conversion rate. The decline in population is not due to sea level rise. However, many of the social problems the town faces, like a shortage of land for residential or commercial use, can be linked to it.

The climate crisis will eventually affect everyone. Most Americans live near the coast, and Tangier Island is a stark warning about the economic consequences and the economic costs of sea level rise.

Schulte concluded that "our study shows that sea-level rise impacts in the US have already been severe in certain areas, even forcing people into relocation, which most Americans don't realize is happening (mostly because of misinformation)."

"Our analysis and data suggest that Tangier Island is nearly out of time, much like other coastal communities around the globe."

Learn more about the exile of rising seas for Islanders in Chesapeake Bay

More information: Frontiers in Climate, DOI: 10.3389/fclim.2021.779774