The Bay as Economic Engine
Tide Rising for Virginia Shellfishing

Eroding Bay Islands Could Be Helped by Experimental Buoys

Holland IslandWith islands in the Chesapeake Bay slowly vanishing beneath the waves because of rising sea levels and sinking land, a company plans to build experimental buoy systems to reduce erosion in three locations this year, including on historic Tangier Island, Virginia.

The Glen Burnie, Maryland-based Murtech plans to use an innovative design tested in the labs of the U.S. Naval Academy by Dr. Michael E. McCormick, a pioneer of wave energy research. He is former Chairman of the Department of Naval Systems Engineering and also a consultant for Murtech.

BuoyphotoThis summer, the company plans to install 53 buoys –- the largest, 10 feet in diameter –- in front of the harbor of Tangier Island (an example of one of the devices is shown at right).  Tangier harbor’s western entrance has been widened by storms and erosion in recent years, allowing large waves to roll in and smash the crab shacks and piers of watermen. The buoys will have fins on their sides, and are designed to create interference with the waves and reduce their size and power. Similar systems are being planned for Barren Island, in Maryland, and Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in the northern Chesapeake Bay, according to Murtech.

“The idea is to reduce the wave energy going into the channel,” said Dr. McCormick.  “And we hope to also help them stabilize the shoreline.”

Researchers say climate change is driving up water levels in the Chesapeake Bay at a rate of three or four millimeters a year.  Many islands in the Bay are eroding, including Holland Island (pictured at the top of this story) in part because the land is also settling due to natural geological shifts.

Tangier IslandTangier Island is ground zero for sea-level rise. This remote fishing community of 470 people looks like a town out of an earlier century –- with Victorian homes, simple cottages, and a general store connected by walking paths and bridges. Because there are no roads built for cars, many residents get around on golf carts.

The streets frequently flood during storms and high tides. Large puddles -– ponds, really -– linger to dominate lawns.  Graves are weighted down with cement slabs, so the frequent flood waters don’t disturb them. Tangier’s public school was built on stilts, and then had to be raised even higher because the waters kept bumping up against the floorboards.

Ken Castelli , Director of the Tangier History Museum, said the island loses several acres of land every year to erosion.

“The island used to be twice as big when Captain John Smith was here, in 1608,” Castelli said.  “Even up until the early 20th century, the island was still relatively large. And then in the last 60 years or so, the island has finally whittled away enough to where it looks like (the erosion) is starting to speed up, because we are getting smaller and smaller.”

The island’s population has fallen by two thirds since the 1930s. Those who do remain are determined not to give up on their quiet, close-knit community.

Tangier Mayor James Eskridge“We do have quite a bit of flooding, but we just take it in stride,” said  Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge, a waterman (pictured at left).

As he motored his work boat out of the harbor on a recent morning, he passed a section of town called Oyster Creek that is now completely beneath the waves.

“You could explore the bottom there and find the bricks from the homes –- the chimneys and old bottles, pottery, different things,” he said, pointing out at an expanse of water near a channel marker. “That’s where the community used to be.”

In addition to the experimental buoy system to protect the Island, the federal and state governments are planning to build a 430-foot-long stone jetty beside the harbor at a cost of about $4.1 million.

“We are willing to try anything,” Eskridge said, passing crab shacks that have been damaged by waves. “When are losing your island to erosion, we’re not picky what we get.”

Back on shore, I called an engineer to ask: can buoys and rocks really do much against the rising sea?

“That’s a very good question, Sir,” replied Larry Ives, leader of the Tangier Island jetty construction project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  “Can they stop it?  Probably not… Can they stave it off for an extended period of time? Yes, sir, they can, until we can come up with some other alternatives.”

The goal is to help the Tangier Islanders hold onto their historic community for as long as they possibly can, with the help of a little Naval Academy innovation and Army Corps muscle.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photo of Holland Island at top by Dave Hartcorn/CBF; photo of buoy and contract worker Hunter Stearns from Murtech/Michael McCormick;Tangier Island by CBF; Mayor James Eskridge by author.)

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