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Earth Chgs On a sinking island, climate science takes a back seat to the Bible
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  1. #1
    Join Date
    May 2004
    Sandhills North Carolina

    On a sinking island, climate science takes a back seat to the Bible

    Tracy A. Woodward / The Washington Post via Getty Images

    On a sinking island, climate science takes a back seat to the Bible
    By David J. Unger on Sep 3, 2018

    This story was originally published by Undark and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    “The good thing about science,” Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us, “is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Your stance on gravity is irrelevant. Either way, if you step off a cliff, you will most certainly fall. Likewise your stance on climate change. If you live on an island in the middle of 18 trillion gallons of warming, expanding water, you’re eventually going to sink no matter what you believe.

    Tiny, waterlogged Tangier Island, off the coast of Virginia in Chesapeake Bay, is full of people of faith. They believe in God. Climate science, not so much. In recent years, they’ve garnered some media attention for the paradox of largely rejecting sea-level rise while simultaneously suffering its wrath. Earl Swift, an author of six previous books and a former correspondent for The Virginian-Pilot, immersed himself for the better part of two years with the 481 inhabitants of Tangier. His new book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, is part regional history, part crabber ride-along, part disaster narrative in slow motion.

    At its best, Chesapeake Requiem is a meditation on belief and disbelief in an America shouting about fake news. Swift is unflinching about the catastrophe on the ground, but careful not to belittle the beliefs of those at the heart of the calamity. He works hard to move beyond fly-by descriptors like “quaint” or “lost in time,” which mainlanders often use to describe the isolated crabbing community. Instead, he penetrates a human community facing an existential threat in ways few of us can understand. They may not believe in a major factor of their own demise, but that doesn’t render their extinction any less real.

    “We’ve actually got people sitting around debating whether these people are worth saving. How is that OK?” one islander tells Swift. “I don’t care if you want to call it erosion or sea-level rise or Aunt Sadie’s butt-boil. It doesn’t matter what’s causing it. The point is that this disaster is happening, and these people need help.”

    Tangier’s situation is indeed dire. As if sea-level rise weren’t enough, the island has also long lost ground to erosion, and the entire region is sinking. Some 21,000 years ago, the Laurentide ice sheet stretched across the middle of the continent, its tremendous weight pushing down the earth below, while the ground around it curled upward. Now that the ice is gone, the land that seesawed up — including coastal Virginia — is seesawing back down. Scientists call it “glacial isostatic adjustment,” but to put it bluntly, the ground is falling while the water is rising.

    Tangier, which Swift describes looking like “a board-flat green wafer just above the water,” will be uninhabitable by 2063, according to a 2015 study in Scientific Reports. The study’s lead author admits to Swift that the estimate was conservative. These days he puts the number of Tangier’s remaining years “probably closer to 25.”

    “[I]f no action is taken, the citizens of Tangier may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental U.S.A.,” the 2015 report concluded.

    This is not for a lack of proposals to save Tangier or at least delay its demise. The book charts decades of plans for jetties and seawalls — all scuttled by a lack of funding, calls for yet more studies, congressional distraction, or all of the above. Meanwhile, Congress has approved $1.4 billion to rebuild wetlands for nesting birds on a sinking island just 60 miles north of Tangier. The human population of that island is zero. Is it any wonder that these people are cynical about their own government?

    Swift spends much of the book emptying crab pots with James Wyatt Eskridge, known simply as Ooker. Like many on the island, Ooker was born there, and his family has called it home since George Washington led the Continental Army in the Battle of Monmouth. In addition to his 50-plus years crabbing, Ooker has been Tangier’s mayor for the past eight. That makes him the go-to face of the island whenever CNN, The New Yorker, the BBC or any number of news outlets decide to mine the island for click-worthy quirks and contradictions.

    Swift recounts a time Ooker appeared in a CNN town hall on climate change featuring the climate activist Al Gore. In a memorable exchange, Ooker asks Gore why — if the seas are indeed rising — he hasn’t he seen it in all his decades of working the Chesapeake Bay. “Our island is disappearing, but it’s because of erosion and not sea-level rise,” he tells the former vice president.

    Rather than explain the individual imperceptibility of sea-level variations across decades, Gore instead answers with a parable. A man trapped in a flood rejects the help of passersby, insisting instead that “the Lord will provide.” When the man eventually dies and ascends to Heaven, he asks God why he didn’t provide, to which God insists that he did — in the form of the passersby offering their help.

    It’s a powerful illustration of science and religion talking past one another — each side missing the other side’s relevance and meaning. The islanders felt that Ooker “won” the argument and that Gore had mocked their faith. (On Ooker’s crabbing shanty hangs an Ichthys — Jesus fish — and the words “WE BELIEVE.”) Swift offers readers a more nuanced take on the back and forth:

    “The Lord has provided the islanders with minds for recognizing the danger that faces them. That might be the sum of what the Lord plans to provide them with, this time around. Denying that the danger exists — or expecting a miracle to chase it away — might not be what the Lord has in mind.”

    There’s a difference between being saved and being saved, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Swift’s insight into the Ooker-Gore exchange is built on years of listening to both the science and the Sunday sermons at Tangier’s Swain Memorial. Swift, himself admittedly “no follower of organized religion,” employs his own imaginative faculties to behold the wicked problem of climate change in a way that Ooker might actually respect. (At least I hope so; it’s unclear if the writer shared his analysis of Gore’s parable with the crabber.) The coming decades will demand boatloads of that kind of empathy as more and more places like Tangier lose their battles to the sea.

    At times, Chesapeake Requiem strays too far into tangents that distract from its important points. Swift isn’t the only writer to depict Tangier as a bellwether for how we handle climate refugees, and more hurried readers can get the gist elsewhere. Nevertheless, the book is a rich contribution to the growing genre of climate-science narrative nonfiction. Not just because Swift documents a culturally significant piece of America that will likely soon disappear, but also because he is trying to make sense of climate-change doubt in those with the greatest incentive to believe.

    “We are here until he [God] says otherwise,” one islander tells Swift. At this point, even the science seems to agree that only a miracle could save Tangier.
    Attached Images

  2. #2
    I wonder how Tangier's sea level compares to Manhattan's? Seems like we could find room for the Islanders... not so much for the population of NYC.


    Highest point on the island is about 4 ft.

    Some parts of Manhattan range from 5-16 ft above sea level.

    Important point: there are enough boats on the island to evacuate it completely. Wouldn't want to be caught in a high-rise in Manhattan if it floods.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    May 2004
    Sandhills North Carolina
    The Sinking Islands of the Southern US

    Pictures at link
    The rich traditions of the Gullah Geechee are at risk of being lost, threatened by what is arguably one of the most harrowing issues the world faces today.
    By Erica Chayes Wida
    5 September 2018

    Spanish moss draped over St Helena Island, South Carolina, as Elting Buster Smalls and his children hummed down the earthen path in their 1960s station wagon. It was the summer of 1974, and the harvest from the Smalls’ 20-acre farm – passed down since the late-1800s through their family of newly freed enslaved and runaway West Africans – was bountiful. Smalls and his children packed baskets of fresh honeydew, peanuts and sugar cane, and fish they’d caught in the river, to drop on the porches of local elders who were no longer able to work the land.

    But today, nearly 50 years after Elting first taught his young daughter Victoria Smalls about the traditions integral to their identity, many Gullah Geechee can no longer work the land, as the land – and thereby the Gullah Geechee way of life – is being rattled by climate change.

    Victoria, the 13th of Elting and his wife Laura’s 14 children, grew up Gullah – a word she didn’t actually learn until after college in the early 1990s. (Colloquially, Gullah distinguishes whether a Gullah Geechee individual lives north of the Savannah River, while those south of it are referred to as Geechee.) For Victoria, Gullah Geechee wasn’t the mystic, isolated culture of inherited Africanisms and Southern landscapes that had become of interest to 21st-Century academics, tourists and hungry land developers.

    “It was just our way of life,” said Victoria, who later moved from St Helena to Charleston, South Carolina, to work on the International African American Museum, which, when it opens in 2020, will illuminate South Carolina’s global historical significance and show the role enslaved Africans and free blacks had in shaping the US.

    The Gullah Geechee and their culture are at risk as climate change threatens the coastal areas where they live (Credit: Credit: Richard Ellis/Alamy)
    The Gullah Geechee and their culture are at risk as climate change threatens the coastal areas where they live (Credit: Richard Ellis/Alamy)

    The Gullah Geechee are descendants of Central and West Africans who are believed to have been trafficked into what is known as the Low Country for their expertise in coastal rice farming and irrigation systems. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, Union General William T Sherman established Special Field Order 15, which designated 400,000 acres of land along the coastline of the Southern US, from South Carolina to Florida, to newly freed black families in parcels of roughly 40 acres each. The isolated geography, which is spread out over 12,000 sq miles known as the Gullah Geechee Corridor, created insulated coastal and island communities, most of which were at least 90% black, with well-preserved cultural traditions.

    Gullah Geechee religion incorporates Christianity with African belief systems, much of which was reflected in the lessons Victoria was taught as a child. Respect for nature, as well as elders and community, was sacred. African crafts were passed down for necessity, like cast nets and flat-bottomed boats known as ‘bateau boats’, which Victoria said are based off the West African dugout and redesigned to easily navigate shallow shores and waterways. The craft of sewing pieces of cloth into large, colourful patterns was combined with European quilting to become a creole art form that also allowed Gullah Geechee women to sit and socialise.

    The Gullah Geechee are descendants of freed African slaves who inhabited coastal lands in the Southern US (Credit: Credit: Gado Images/Alamy)
    The Gullah Geechee are descendants of freed African slaves who inhabited coastal lands in the Southern US (Credit: Gado Images/Alamy)

    “We didn’t have a bridge on [St Helena] until 1939. The island was like an incubator for the culture, the language. You don’t hear it now, but when I was growing up I had a very thick accent,” Victoria said.

    The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which strives to preserve the Gullah Geechee sites and stories, describes the Gullah Geechee language as a creole dialect that sprung from the linguistic influences of “European slave traders, slave owners and diverse African ethnic groups”.

    “Beaufort was only 7 miles away, and when I was four, five, up to 10 years old, people would laugh at me in Beaufort, even the blacks who were still Gullah Geechee people,” Victoria said. “The nurturing you received on St Helena Island was so wonderful that the language and the way of life and working the land, farming, living off the water and living in tight-knit communities – it was so different than that just 7 miles inland on the mainland.”

    The Gullah Geechee Corridor’s isolated geography created insulated coastal and island communities (Credit: Credit: David Lyons/Alamy)
    The Gullah Geechee Corridor’s isolated geography created insulated coastal and island communities (Credit: David Lyons/Alamy)

    Today, the pejorative perception of the Gullah Geechee being uneducated or backcountry has shifted to one in which the identity is celebrated, both by academics and those who grew up in the culture. Yet the Gullah Geechee ways are slipping away.
    According to Dr Albert George II, director of conservation at the South Carolina Aquarium who was raised Gullah Geechee, individuals residing in the more isolated communities such as St Helena still subsist on their own agriculture, sourcing food from their farms and gardens and fish from the waterways rather than going to the grocery store. But due to environmental changes, such as rising sea levels and salt water erosion, connecting to the earth through food is becoming a complicated feat.
    Climate change is taking away hundreds of years of cuisine and culture
    Shrimp, for example, is an integral ingredient in several Gullah Geechee dishes eaten throughout the South, such as the popular low country boil, which to the Gullah Geechee was considered a ‘slop pot’, a way to use all the leftovers from the fridge before they went bad. But “shellfish need a certain level of water quality and salinity. Oysters, clams – you see serious shifts in their ability to propagate in [the] environment,” George said. “These people are experiencing changes to their land, a shift in habitat and [a] shift of what’s in the water itself. Climate change is taking away hundreds of years of cuisine and culture.”

    He continued: “Some places in the Gullah Geechee Corridor are experiencing subsidence from climate change and land development factors like building upon sand-based soils or wetlands in the Charleston peninsula. In these areas, the land is actually sinking.”

    The Gullah Geechee have preserved African crafts, such as boat building and basket weaving, out of necessity (Credit: Credit: Richard Ellis/Alamy)
    The Gullah Geechee have preserved African crafts, such as boat building and basket weaving, out of necessity (Credit: Richard Ellis/Alamy)

    George, however, is determined that Gullah Geechee culture will not disappear. His father was a proud Gullah Geechee man who told him “unless there was rice with the meal, it wasn’t a full dinner.” As homage to the crop that is agriculturally obsolete in most Gullah Geechee farming communities, George founded RICE (Resilience Initiative for Coastal Education).

    RICE strives to open a “two-way flow of communication,” George said, between the Gullah Geechee and the local municipal, county, business and state government leaders. He hopes this will help establish a long-term plan to preserve the land and culture for the Gullah Geechee people in the wake of what is arguably one of the most harrowing issues the world faces today.
    “Growing up, you didn’t evacuate for a hurricane,” Victoria said. “We let our horses roam free… and they would always come back. Somehow our community knew where the animals were from – what belonged to whom. I remember not even boarding up our windows.”

    All we have now is our name
    Since Hurricane Matthew hit the island in October 2016, Victoria said flooding has become a major issue, and not just during hurricanes. During high tide and torrential rain, the land bridge floods and becomes impassable, and entire crops have been wiped out.

    “All we have now is our name. We’re the last Saltwater Geechee [island dwellers as opposed to the mainland’s Freshwater Geechee] on Sapelo,” said Maurice Bailey, a resident of Sapelo Island, Georgia’s only remaining Gullah Geechee community, Hogg Hummock, and vice president of the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS).
    “Our lifestyle is surviving… We grew up farming, hunting, preserving meats. Our lifestyle was rough, but we didn’t know how rough ‘til we got older,” he said.
    Shellfish is an integral part of Gullah Geechee cuisine (Credit: Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy)

    Shellfish is an integral part of Gullah Geechee cuisine, but rising sea levels and salt water erosion are causing the habitat to shift (Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy)
    Now, the Sapelo community cannot thrive on farming alone and many of its residents have left the island to either find work or love – as most who remain are related by blood. Bailey is spearheading an effort to plant a 10-acre community garden and honeybee hive so Sapelo residents will have a means of revenue growing and selling produce at markets on the mainland. So far, they’ve planted purple ribbon sugar cane as well as red peas, a much smaller version of red kidney beans, that were brought over as seeds from Africa and are used in a traditional Gullah Geechee beans-and-rice dish called Hoppin’ John.

    When Bailey was a boy, Sapelo Island had close to 300 people living on it. Today, he said there are only 29 Gullah Geechee left. Some traditions still live on, like eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s, farming in the community gardens and gathering around at night by the camp fire – the dwindling community of elders and children seated together. But other cherished ways, like placing baskets of food on a neighbour’s porch, are almost completely obsolete.

    A changing environment has made it difficult for the Gullah Geechee to continue to rely solely on the land for sustenance (Credit: Credit: KC Shields/Alamy)
    A changing environment has made it difficult for the Gullah Geechee to continue to rely solely on the land for sustenance (Credit: KC Shields/Alamy)
    “My 16-year-old son died four years ago. While I was trying to heal, someone left a bag of beautiful squash, peppers – just a wonderful bounty on my steps and I didn’t know who it was,” Victoria said.

    At the time, Victoria still lived on St Helena Island. The gift was a reminder of her past, of her Gullah Geechee roots, of her father, Elting, who died in 1992 but cast lessons of community and love upon his children the way he once cast his shrimp net into the water. With climate change, these nets may not sweep up the same bounty they once did, but individuals like Victoria, George and Bailey are not letting their heritage die out.

    “At some point, based on predictions, we will have to move. Yes, there would be culture lost, but we’re resilient people. I mean we were able to keep a lot of our Africanisms intact,” Victoria said, the echo of her father’s commanding voice sturdy in her tone. “We may be able to keep some of our culture in the palm of our hands – the way someone maybe carried some seeds in their palm as they were carried on a ship from West Africa.”

    The Gullah Geechee are confident that their unique culture will survive (Credit: Credit: Richard Ellis/Alamy)

    Victoria Smalls: “Yes, there would be culture lost, but we’re resilient people” (Credit: Richard Ellis/Alamy)
    Attached Images
    Last edited by NC Susan; 09-07-2018 at 03:11 PM.


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