Ten miles and a world away from Maryland's eastern shore lies a tiny, forgotten piece of America, an old jewel poking out of the Chesapeake. But its days are numbered, because slowly but surely, Smith Island is drowning.
"We started off with an island about 10 miles long, 6 miles wide, and now the erosion has shrunk it down to about 8 miles long and about 4 miles wide," said resident Jennings Evans.
Evans and 350 other rugged souls call Smith Island home. They are mostly crab fisherman, as Evans was for 45 years. The sea gives them their way of life. But the sea may also be the death of Smith Island.
"The bay is strange, the way we live here. It gives us our food and gives us our living, but takes away our land," says Evans.
The problem with Smith Island is that the water around it is rising. And to make matters worse, the land is sinking. A strong high tide can easily swamp the island, which sits a mere two feet above sea level.
Smith Island may seem an unimportant relic of the past but in fact, it offers a disturbing glimpse into the next millennium.
"Smith Island's a look ahead, it's a precursor of what we expect to happen to other islands in the future, to other low lying islands," says coastal scientist Stephen Leatherman.
Leatherman says the rising sea level that's engulfing the island is a direct result of global warming.
"The Earth is warming up as a response to greenhouse gases, which are being released by industrial activities, burning coal, oil and gas," he says.
Within the coming century, projections call for the Earth to warm by about 6 degrees, in turn melting polar icecaps and expanding the oceans.
"We expect the possibility of as much sea level rise as three feet over the next century," says Jerry Mahlman of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.
If three feet doesn't sound like a big deal, maybe this will: for every one foot the ocean rises, 150 feet of beach gets swallowed up. A three-foot rise means 450 feet of Long Island's Jones Beach disappears.
The damage, according to some models, could be catastrophic: whole sections of South Florida, North Carolina's Outer Banks, New Jersey's barrier islands, and even New Orleans, will be under water.
"This problem is a candidate to be the defining problem of the 21st century. In my view the only thing that would make it not a leading candidate would be World War III," says Mahlman.
Sea level rise is just the beginning: Fueled by larger, warmer seas, scientists predict hurricanes will become more intense. Think of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which caused $30 billion worth of damage, only more powerful.
"If you had increased that storm by 5 or 10 percent in terms of its sustained wind speeds, those numbers would have probably popped up into the $90 billion to $100 billion category. Just to give you an idea," says Leatherman.
There's more: Floods like the one that devastated Grand Forks, North Dakota, two years ago will be more common. There'll be more heat waves, like the 1995 Chicago scorcher that took 700 lives.
"Philadelphia would be more like New Orleans," says Mahlman. "Where New Orleans would become like I don't know what," he added.
If global warming seems unlikely and remote to you, it doesn't to Evans. He wonders if his will be the last of ten generations to live out their lives on Smith Island.
Can Smith Island be saved? Or will it become the Chesapeake's sunken treasure ... buried at sea?
For more on greenhouse warming, go to the NOAA Web site.
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