Missed Connections: Ice Sheets and Assateague

What do melting glaciers in Antarctica have to do with Assateague Island?

I ask this because someone asked me that same question recently, and it left me both surprised and perplexed. So I thought I’d take this time to answer it.

On Sept. 14, The Washington Post published an article on the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers on the west coast of Antarctica, or West Antarctica. The article reported new findings, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a research article titled, “Damage accelerates ice shelf instability and mass loss in Amundsen Sea Embayment.” Coverage of the research article was picked up by major print and broadcast news outlets as well as science publications.

The short version is, Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers together already contribute around five percent of global sea level rise. A natural buffer system that has long kept them in place is breaking down. If the buffer system breaks down entirely and the glaciers break free, it will lead to the collapse of the West Antarctica ice sheet.

And the West Antarctica ice sheet, the Post noted, contains enough ice to eventually raise sea levels by 10 feet.

That’s bad news for Assateague Island, and I’ll tell you why. In 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey published a report titled, “Coastal Vulnerability Assessment of Assateague Island National Seashore (ASIS) to Sea-Level Rise.” The report used the Coastal Vulnerability Index, or CVI, “to map relative vulnerability of the coast to future sea-level rise within Assateague Island National Seashore (ASIS) in Maryland and Virginia.”

Long story short: Assateague Island is very vulnerable to sea level rise. The report says, “The areas within Assateague that are likely to be most vulnerable to sea-level rise are those with the highest occurrence of overwash and the highest rates of shoreline change. Nearly 60 km (37 miles) of shoreline is evaluated along the national seashore. Of this total, 30 percent of the mapped shoreline is classified as being at very high vulnerability due to future sea-level rise. Thirty percent is classified as high vulnerability… Here’s a map from the report that lays it out.

Figure 5. Relative Coastal Vulnerability for Assateague Island National Seashore. The innermost color bar is the relative coastal vulnerability index (CVI). The remaining color bars are separated into the geologic variables (1-3) and physical process variables (4 – 6). The very high vulnerability shoreline is located in low overwashed areas where rates of shoreline erosion are highest. The low vulnerability shoreline is located at the southernmost end of Assateague in Virginia near Chincoteague Inlet where shoreline accretion rates are high.

And that was in 2004. In 2012, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization published  Atlantic National Seashores in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption, which looked at the seven East Coast national seashores, including Assateague. The report noted:

“Ultimately, the greatest threat to the seashores is that they will be submerged under a higher ocean, driven by a hotter climate. The report includes the first sets of maps to show the low-lying lands in these national seashores that are particularly vulnerable to inundation by a rising ocean in this century, and before that to destruction of bridges and roads, ecosystem losses, and disintegration of barrier islands by the forces of rising waters and stronger coastal storms… over half of the seashore lands are lower than one meter (3.3 feet) above the current sea level, and so are highly vulnerable.”

Here are RMCO’s maps of the Maryland end of Assateague Island National Seashore from their report. They show current lands that are one meter or less above the current sea level (left image) and the national seashore and selected features (right). 

And the West Antarctica ice sheet contains enough ice to eventually raise sea levels by 10 feet.

After reading The Washington Post article, I posted about it on my Facebook page, with a link to an interactive web series on Thwaites Glacier produced by “The World,” a radio news program. In the post I commented, “Best case, it seems, would still put Assateague Island underwater.” Then I shared it to a number of Assateague Groups on Facebook.

Son of a gun if two Facebook group Admins didn’t reject my shared post. And here’s where the puzzling question comes in. One of the Admins asked, “Interesting, but what does this have to do with Assateague Island?”.

Let me make the connection. Here’s what Antarctica glacial melt has to do with Assateague.

It’s pretty easy to conclude that a barrier island routinely flooded with overwash and very vulnerable to sea level rise isn’t going to survive three feet of sea level rise, much less 10. And Assateague Island isn’t just a 37-mile-long sand bar. It’s wild horses that draw more than a million visitors every year, recreation that includes camping and surfing and fishing and hunting and birdwatching… It’s millions of dollars in tourism revenue. It’s the frontier of space exploration. And if you’ve visited Assateague and Chincoteague and Wallops, even once, it’s you, too.

At the risk of being obvious, let me spell it out. Melting glaciers and ice shelves in Antarctica will dramatically increase sea level rise. Eventually that sea level rise will submerge Assateague Island. Then goodbye sunrises and sunsets, horses, horseshoe crabs, dolphins, Pony Swims, rocket launches, marriage proposals and weddings on the pristine sand, millions of dollars in livelihoods, homes, and communities.

We’ve known about this for a generation. It won’t happen right now or all at once. But it will happen, sooner than later. And it will be like watching someone you love gradually, painfully, tragically deteriorate and disappear before your eyes. It will happen if nothing is done now. Not 2028 or 2034 or 2040. The island won’t be there.

For most people, me included, Assateague Island provides an invigorating, rejuvenating, even healing escape that somehow also feels like home. That’s its magic. That’s its beauty. And maybe that’s all we want to see. A friend of mine once complained about a movie set among poor folks in the Louisiana swamps, “It was not beautiful.” Maybe a post about the sea level rise that may one day drown Assateague Island was rejected because it was not beautiful. I get that.

But we can’t ignore the connection between sea level rise and Assateague’s future. We can’t ignore the consequences of sea level rise without losing our great escape forever.

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