A fishing shanty sinks as water levels rise. Photo by John Werry.
New Challenges to a System Already Under Stress
"We're seeing the impacts now,
right before our eyes."
~Will Baker, President, CBF
The Chesapeake region is home to 17 million people, thousands of species, including the bald eagle and blue crab, and unique cultures—from watermen to congressmen to small farmers—who live on and around the Bay. It is a national treasure, but also seriously threatened by pollution and development. Climate change adds new challenges to an ecosystem already under stress.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warming temperatures and sea level rise—alongside unpredictable weather patterns and increased storm intensity—are a reality. The panel also confirms that human activity is to blame. And we may be seeing the effects upon the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams.
That reality is very visible to those living on the Bay. Smith Island and Tangier Island are inhabited islands in the mid-Bay. Residents of Smith and Tangier are losing their homes. They're losing their islands to sea level rise. Other previously inhabited islands, such as Holland's Island, are completely submerged. On the property of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland, several dozen acres of pine forest have been claimed by rising waters in just the last 25 years.
Here are just a few of the impacts the Bay region is already experiencing.
- Warmer waters have a decreased capacity to hold dissolved oxygen, exacerbating the Bay's fish-killing dead zones, squeezing fish into smaller and smaller oxygenated areas of the water column, and contributing to algal blooms.
- Rising water temperatures are stressing fish from the Bay's iconic striped bass to Pennsylvania's beloved brook trout.
- Temperature sensitive species, such as eel grass, are truly at risk.
- In Baltimore, the EPA predicts that a three degree overall air temperature increase could increase the heat-related death toll by 50 percent, from 85 to 130 people annually.
Rising Sea Levels
- Rising sea levels threaten to inundate miles of Chesapeake shoreline. Thousands of acres of environmentally critical wetlands have been and continue to be at risk.
- Sea level rise is exacerbated by land subsidance. This combination of processes has resulted in approximately one foot of net sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay over the past 100 years—a rate nearly twice that of the global historic average.
- According to some scientists, the region might see as much as a three- to four-foot sea level rise this century.
- The wetlands at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge are disappearing, as are the Bay’s iconic islands—Sharp’s Island disappeared completely in 1962.
- In low-lying areas, storm surges combined with higher sea levels and increasingly erratic storm activity may create a “perfect storm” that will flood thousands of acres. Many of those areas are economically disadvantaged, and the combination of flooding and limited access to emergency facilities—facilities that might themselves be flooded—could be disastrous.
The good news is that there are solutions at hand. The fight to reduce the greenhouse gases that cause climate change is not unlike the challenge we face in cleaning up and restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. And many of the solutions are the same.
A recent study conducted at Yale University in partnership with CBF shows that by implementing a handful of the agricultural conservation programs called for in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, Bay area states could safely sequester—or store away—4.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Carbon Sequestration Rates of Selected Agricultural Conservation Practices
(Pounds of Carbon per Acre per Year)
Source: Climate Change and the Chesapeake Bay: Challenges, Impacts, and the Multiple Benefits of Agricultural Conservation Work [pdf]
This is equivalent to the amount of annual carbon dioxide emissions from residential electricity across Delaware, or the carbon dioxide released by over three quarters of a million (approximately 786,000) Hummers, driving 12,000 miles each, in a given year. The conclusion is clear: Protecting the Bay also helps fight climate change.
Implementing these agricultural practices will have the dual benefit of restoring water quality in the Chesapeake, its rivers, and streams and also serve as an immediately applicable tool in reducing greenhouse gases.
To avoid the more catastrophic effects of climate change, our leadership must step up to the plate and address emissions from residential energy use, transportation, and commercial building operations.
The Bay is a national treasure, and protecting it—as this report shows—will also help the global fight against climate change.