Global sea levels are rising and the world’s land ice is disappearing. Sea levels have risen 6 to 8 inches in the past 100 years, and Antarctica has been losing more than 100 cubic kilometers of ice per year since 2002, according to NASA satellite data.
By the year 2100, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that sea levels will rise as much as 20 inches.
While rising sea levels ultimately influence the entire planet, they pose the greatest threat to the islands currently residing at sea level.
Here are some of the islands — many of them small nations — likely to face this crisis first.
Tangier is a town in Accomack County, Virginia, United States, on Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay. The population was 727 at the 2010 census. Since 1850, the island’s landmass has been reduced by 67%.
Under the mid-range sea level rise scenario, much of the remaining landmass is expected to be lost in the next 50 years and the town will likely need to be abandoned.
The people who came to settle the island permanently arrived in the 1770s and were farmers. In the late 19th century, the islanders began to become more dependent on harvesting crabs and oysters from the Chesapeake Bay.
As the waterman livelihood became more important and more lucrative, there were often conflicts among the oyster dredgers and oyster tongers in the bay, and between those living in Maryland and those living in Virginia.
Many who live on Tangier speak a distinctive dialect of American English, which scholars have disputed as derived from a 17th-century English lexicon and phonetics.
Linguist David Shores has noted that, while it may sound like a British variety of English, the dialect is a creation of its own time and place off the eastern shore of Virginia.
The persistence of this dialectal variety is often attributed to the geographic isolation of the population from the mainland. Tangier Island is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A study led by marine biologist David Schulte with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850, according to the New York Times.
In addition to problems caused by sea level rise, Tangier faces issues because of its location in the center of the bay, as well as its crumbly surface, which is made primarily of sand and silt.
The combination leaves the island fragile and unprotected. “They’re just in a very untenable position,” Schulte tells the Times. “And they don’t have any options right now other than something big to turn them around.”
Schulte outlined a $30 million engineering plan that might preserve the island. If not, he estimates residents have about 50 years before they will have to vacate Tangier.