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Changing Tides on Maryland's Smith Island

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo


In the middle of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, a tiny island may soon become an early victim of climate change. Smith Island is the last inhabited island in Maryland, a place where residents—hearty watermen who make their living catching oysters and blue crabs—still speak in the Cornish dialect of their ancestors. Many Smith Islanders can trace their ancestry back 12 generations to the English colonists who settled here in the 17th century. And yet their link to this land may soon be broken: Smith Island is eroding.


Though scientists differ on how long it will be before the island is underwater—anywhere between 30 and 100 years--there is no dispute about the cause: rising seas. The global trend of rising ocean levels is especially acute in the Chesapeake Bay, where water is rising at twice the world average. To make matters worse, the land around the Chesapeake is sinking: a trend scientists call post-glacial subsidence. According to a state-commissioned task force, Maryland is now losing 260 acres of tidal shoreline annually.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Smith Island has lost 3,300 acres of wetlands in the last 150 years. Many residents have relocated to the mainland; the island's population is down from a peak of 700 in 1960 to 267 full-time residents today. Many who remain continue to work the water, rising before dawn on summer mornings to dredge for blue crabs. The crabs are shipped daily to the mainland, where they are routed to restaurants up and down the East Coast.


If Smith Island's days are numbers, so is its unique way of life. There are few cars, one school (which serves kindergarten through eighth grade), and no hospital or police station. Visitors are greeted warmly. Residents don't lock their doors at night, and leave the keys to their golf carts—the preferred mode of transportation—in the ignition. It is a community in the true sense of the word, and one whose time is drawing to a close.