Climate Change and Vanishing Economies | WYPR

Climate Change and Vanishing Economies

Nov 28, 2018

Lower Hooper's Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Credit Tom Pelton

Last week, on Black Friday, the Trump Administration released a Congressionally-mandated scientific assessment of the impact of climate change. The report examined the future American economy, predicting that wildfires, droughts, and floods will impose hundreds of billions of dollars in costs by the end of the century if nothing is done.

President Trump told reporters he does not believe the scientists – even though they are his own scientists. But you don’t need to believe scientists to accept climate change.  All you have to do is believe your own eyes.

In California, we are seeing record-breaking wildfires.  And in the Chesapeake Bay region, we are losing acres of land every year to rising sea levels and sinking lands. Among the many places you can see it is down in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where forests and farm fields are being killed by the ever-encroaching salt water.

On Sunday, I took a drive down to the far southern end of a long, narrow, finger of land called Hooper’s Island, where the bay often laps across the road.

I set off in my kayak from a shoreline of broken blocks of concrete beside the road. I was heading off in search of the lost town of Applegarth, a once-thriving fishing community that disappeared beneath the waves last century.

As I paddled south along a spindly peninsula with deserted beaches and wiry groundsel trees, I passed clusters of bufflehead ducks… and a pair of migrating loons calling out.

After about an hour of paddling, across an expanse of water, I saw a grassy island with a distant row of loblolly pine trees and a few isolated dead trunks jutting up from long, sandy stretches.

I dragged my boat up onto shore and slogged along the mudflats, watching swarms of tiny fish flee from my boots. A few hundred yards down the shore, I began to see the first signs of what must have been the lost town. Some ancient wooden posts protruded from the shallows.  Beneath the waters of a murky pond, my feet bumped into the brick foundation what must have been a building, perhaps a house.

On the saltmeadow hay nearby was an enormous mound of oyster shells – evidence of the town of Applegarth’s once thriving oyster industry.  In the mid-19th century, Applegarth grew from a few dozen families to a community of more than 100 people, with its own post office, several stores and even an elementary school.

But harvesting oysters with dredges and long-handled tongs, often in the dead of winter, was never an easy business, according to William Cronin’s book, “The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake.”  And watermen from Hooper’s Island sometimes kidnapped recent German immigrants on the docks in Baltimore and forced them to work on oyster boats here and live what were essentially prison compounds called “Paddy Shacks.”

Those compounds were shut down by raids conducted by U.S. Marshalls, according to Cronin’s book.  And by the 1920’s, erosion and sea level rise were driving increasing numbers of families off of Lower Hooper’s Island, with a Hurricane wiping out the last bridge in 1933.

Since then, most of what remains of the town of Applegarth has completely disappeared to the rising seas – except this pipe of oysters and the silence. It’s a silence that more coastal communities could experience if they also have their economies inundated.