In Misty of Chincoteague, the beloved children’s tale, Misty faced many challenges, but climate change wasn’t one of them – at least not when Misty, a real pony that author Marguerite Henry based her story on, was alive.
Today, that story is different – and scary. Chincoteague is the small village on Virginia’s southern Atlantic coastline that borders Assateague, a barrier island and federally designated national seashore that encompasses Maryland as well as Virginia. Both Assateague and Chincoteague are “ground zero” for the impact climate change is having on the natural world.
I’m particularly concerned about Assateague because it is my “heart” place. I’ve been there every year but two of the last 37. It’s a great spot to swim and chill on the beach and spy on the region’s famous wild ponies.
But it’s also where I go to revive my spirit and soul. Once I leave the shore area that’s watched over by lifeguards, I can walk for hours with only rolling waves for company. If I bike around the marshy areas that are managed to attract migrating birds, I might see snowy owls and snow geese as well as bald eagles, red winged blackbirds and of course, great blue herons. The night sky is so dark that the Milky Way glimmers in plain view.
It has been this way for eons. And yet, I worry about whether this special place will survive another hundred years. I’m not alone.“Barrier islands such as Assateague will be especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and sea-level rise, “ says Trish Kicklighter, the former superintendent of Assateague Island National Seashore.
In the almost 4 decades I’ve been going there, I’ve witnessed climate change impacts first-hand.
Higher temperatures seem to have affected the wildlife significantly. I rarely see spring peepers, the tiny frogs that were once so abundant, we used to have to be careful not to step on them. Small turtles, harmless black snakes, and beautiful roseate spoonbills have become equally scarce.
A lot of the big dunes are gone, too, flattened and scattered by the extreme weather events that have scoured the Atlantic seaboard.
Barrier islands are actually supposed to break the impact of foul weather on the coastlines they protect. So the fact that Assateague’s beaches bear the brunt of hurricanes is not particularly unusual.
What is worrisome is the increasing frequency of the storms, and the related sea-level rise that is taking its toll.
The National Park Service and EPA agree. Their scientists project that the island is in for a sea-level increase of as much as nine inches in the short term, and perhaps 27 inches by 2100. That’s significant because the island is only 46 feet above sea level at its highest point. Rising sea level means that more sea water and sand will “overwash” into the island’s interior, potentially impacting the famous ponies that “symbolize the wild and timeless beauty of the Island’s cultural landscape,” notes the Park Service.
When I was in Chincoteague earlier this summer, the headline of the local Chincoteague Beacon screamed this story:
“Assateague Assets at Risk: Climate change imperils $135M worth of buildings, roads and more.”
“Every building, road, fence, shelter and watering station on the island” is threatened, the paper declared. Citing a report by the U.S. Department of Interior, the story noted that “95 percent of Assateague Island National Seashore is considered high exposure, meaning…it will become more vulnerable to storms.”
These are not theoretical projections. In the Maryland portion of Assateague, damage to the South Ocean Beach parking lot was one of the biggest effects of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, which deposited over four feet of sand in the parking lots adjacent to the beach. On the Virginia side of Assateague, where I usually go, changing rooms and cold showers exist no longer. There are a couple of porta-potties away from the beach. Otherwise, wear your suit to the beach!
I think about what I can do to protect this place that I love so much. No, I can’t turn back the tides like Neptune or keep hurricanes from reaching the shore like Zeus. But I can help raise awareness about how important it is for all of us to do our part to reduce our climate change impact. I can also continue to support the efforts of Moms Clean Air Force to promote climate change solutions. I hope you’ll join us.