As sea levels continue to rise, Assateague and other Delmarva islands are on the alert
On a cool Saturday afternoon, the wind billows over the sand, its soft rustling between the leaves melding with the neighs and whinnies of grazing ponies.
Camera-armed tourists kneel in the grass, cautiously reserving their shutter clicks to not startle the roaming horses.
To the east, a great sand mound blocks the view of the horizon, where just 100 yards beyond, ocean waves crash against the desolate beach, crawling upward before inevitably moving back into the sea.
"You can just totally unplug here," said Mike Foltz, visiting from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "It's so peaceful and natural, and the way you can just walk up over the dunes and the water is just right there."
Assateague Island is located in a precarious spot in regard to sea level rise. With sea levels rising — a total of 5 inches internationally since 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — the barrier island has been faced with the task of adapting. Noting the vulnerability of the park, the National and Maryland parks services have taken strides to prevent future catastrophes.
This year, the state park plans to eliminate eight campsites and relocate 18 others inland to make way for large storm and tide barrier dunes.
Meanwhile, the national park has proposed moving some of its campgrounds, too. The National Seashore's plan for development and conservation is in development, and plans for the campground renovation project will be presented at a public hearing Thursday, March 30 at the Assateague Island National Seashore Environmental Education Center.
READ MORE: Assateague State Park to cut 8 campsites
“This project seeks to enhance Assateague State Park’s sustainability as a coastal barrier island,” said Nita Settina, Maryland Park Service superintendent. “By strategically relocating some roads and campsites, we expect that we will be better able to protect the park’s infrastructure and the natural dune and beach landscape.”
Impact of land sinking
Maryland can expect, on the high-end of projections, to see a rise in sea levels of 2.1 feet by 2050, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. This could prove devastating to an ecosystem that exists primarily less than a meter above sea level.
While the park does not track the direct magnitude of sea level rise, beginning in 2008, NASA Wallops Flight Facility developed the Experimental Advanced Airborne Research Lidar, an aerial system used for tracking topography of the island.
"The mid-Atlantic region is an area experiencing glacial subsidence or sinking," said Bill Hulslander, chief of resources management at Assateague Island National Seashore. "Subsidence and sea-level rise together have compounded certain climate change effects in our region."
The impact of subsidence coinciding with sea-level rise has been exemplified in the southern Chesapeake Bay region. Average sea-level rise at Sewell's Point, just south of Chincoteague Island, stands at nearly double the global average, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey. Specifically, levels at Sewell's Point measure just above 0.5 meters, while globally, the average sit just below 0.3 meters. Both began with identical sea level measurements in 1927, the beginning of the study, at just above 0.1 meters.
At the state park, preparation for sea level rise and storm impact includes moving road loops westward as the beach retreats inward toward the dunes. The result of this shortened beach has made the park particularly vulnerable to storm damage, park manager Angela Baldwin said.
"What we've been seeing over the past couple years is that even smaller weather events are having a serious impact," Baldwin said.
The movement of campgrounds and infrastructure on the barrier island are by no means a fix-all for the problems on Assateague.
"When they talk about moving these barriers and road loops, it's really a temporary solution to a permanent problem," said Joe Fehrer, coastal and Lower Shore project manager for the Maryland/DC district Nature Conservancy.
"Their nature is dynamic"
For Assateague, this sinking coupled with storm damage, becomes a key point of concern.
"We see greater impacts on ecosystems with increased storm intensity that in turn leads to an acceleration of natural barrier island process, such as overwash and island rollover," Hulslander said.
The bulk of the Assateague and Chincoteague parks are considered either at high risk or extremely high risk for storm damage and sea-level rise — a threat that is only increasing. Up to 40 feet of coastal sands erode with each passing year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Assateague tends to be more stable than Chincoteague, where some of the barrier islands to the south can lose between 30 and 40 feet per year," Fehrer said. "But as natural barrier islands, their nature is dynamic."
The effect of climate change and sea-level rise is more complex than a simple sinking world, more commonly known as the "bathtub model." Seventy percent of the northeast coastal lands are expected to respond dynamically to sea-level rise, according to a 2016 United States Geological Service study done in partnership with the Northeast Climate Science Center.
In other words, instead of just shrinking, the landscape itself will change into something entirely different.
"Changing and moving"
On barrier islands, geography can change drastically at the whim of the sea, Fehrer said. However, a higher sea magnifies this characteristic.
"Of course, for barrier islands, it's part of their nature to constantly be changing and moving," Baldwin said. "What we've seen, especially on the eastern portion of the state park, is a more consistent shortening of the beach."
On Assateague, this requires a push for establishing solid dunes, protecting assets and making for an island that can survive despite reformation.
"Our future decision making will be directly tied to making park facilities more resilient," Hulslander said. "For example, our very latest action will be to relocate some of our oceanside campsites away from the ocean to another, more stable area on the island."
Hulslander noted that these sites are areas that sustain consistent storm damage. The opening of space to create larger dunes will be able to protect inland sites from future storm surges and sea-level rise.
"The dunes are a good, green approach to storm impact and sea-level rise," Fehrer said. "But as time continues, what we'll need to do is move valuable infrastructure westward, or even off the islands."
Education, Baldwin said, is key for safety at the park.
"There's so many great resources out there to help people better understand our parks," Baldwin said. "Along with that, communication is important, and to have visitors to our park listening when we announce a beach closure."
For those who revel in the quiet ocean breeze, grazing ponies and crashing waves, the politics sit on the wayside, with hopes that a place near to their hearts stays the way it is.
"This is really just a special place," Foltz said. "I'd just hate to see it underwater in 20 years."