Climate Injustice at (actually slightly above)
Sea Level

Photos: Nathan Villiger

Crab shanty and soft crab scrape-skiff in Ewell harbor.

On one of the last truly hot days of September, I found myself seated on the upper deck of a ferryboat as the Western Shore of Maryland slowly faded into the distance behind me. At the eastern horizon, I watched as trees slowly peeked out of the Bay’s white-capped-dotted waters, appearing at first like the masts of a strange green ship rising out of the foam. That ship soon grew houses, docks, and boats; I knew then that I had sighted our day’s destination – Smith Island, Maryland. However, while Smith Island appears to be rising out of the Bay, the opposite is true. Smith Island is slowly slipping beneath the waves.

Today, no bridge connects Smith Island to the mainland. Islanders instead depend on their boats or public ferry service for transportation to and from their homes. This relative isolation has shielded Smith Island from many of the world’s ills – incomes across the island were notably equal, and crime is non-existent. But physical isolation has not rendered the Island and its residents immune to the twin forces of humankind and nature, working together in a wicked relationship, to inundate the island and eventually render it uninhabitable.

Ruined crab shanty and crab pots in Ewell harbor.

Anthropogenic climate change threatens the continued existence of Smith Island and Smith Islanders. Current estimates from the University of Maryland predict that Smith Island will be entirely underwater by 2100. The 200 some inhabitants of the Island’s three towns will be evacuated to higher ground, making them Maryland’s first climate refugees. Wealthier communities like Kent Island, Ocean City, or Annapolis, meanwhile, get seawalls and breakwaters.

I had no idea that such a glaring example of climate injustice was occurring less than 50 miles from my home in St. Mary’s City. So I went to Smith Island with this injustice fresh in my mind. Visiting Smith Island meant confronting the effects of climate change head on, and directly interacting with a place and people experiencing climate extinction.

Workboats and docks in Ewell. Note the high water level.

But Smith Island is not yet lost, a fact I am immediately reminded of upon arriving in the Island’s largest community – and unofficial “capital” – Ewell. On our way in, the ferry boat navigates the narrow channel into the harbor, dodging numerous crab shanties where fishermen store pots and keep soft-shell crabs before they are ready to send to market. Crab pots are stacked all around, either on piers rising from the marsh or on the wharf onshore. Most of the watermen are off the island today, either at a boat docking competition in Solomon’s Island – a  classic Chesapeake-region waterman’s pastime – or out crabbing. Seafood is still the largest industry on Smith Island, and even absent watermen there are still work boats, crab pots,  and bushel baskets everywhere.

A ruined house on the outskirts of town, likely lost during a winter storm.

The former Ruke’s Store, now undergoing renovation. The building backs to Ewell harbor.

After a quick lunch of perhaps the best crabcake I had ever had, my first stop on the Island was the Smith Island cultural center and museum. The museum chronicles the history of Smith Island and showcases cultural artifacts that are central to modern Island life, like a  scale-replica crab scrape boat used to scrape soft-shelled blue crabs out of the eelgrass beds ringing the Island. At the museum’s exit was a small exhibit about Smith Island in the 21st century that lists the year-round population of the island which has decreased precipitously since the 20th century. Indeed, as I wandered the Island’s shell-strewn streets, there were multiple empty houses. Simultaneously, as the museum docent explained, Smith Island is experiencing a tourism boom, with mainlanders establishing vacation homes and fishing camps on the island. Other houses were being renovated, despite many of them backing directly to the marsh.

Two 19th Century houses behind the Ewell Elementary School.

After leaving the harbor area, I headed down Ewell’s main road, a path appropriately christened “Smith Island Rd.” on Google Maps, though few Islanders call it by that name. Heading South on the road took me to the edge of town, where a causeway across the marsh leads to the Island’s second largest community, Rhodes Point. By this time the tide was rising, and at  several points the road was inundated by an inch or two of marsh water. Still, the undeniable  natural beauty of the Island is clearly evident as the green marsh rolls out to the horizon.

Just down the road from the harbor, I spotted a house that I had passed earlier. In the two hours I had spent wandering around the island, the once dry backyard had become decidedly wetter. The rising tide created a pool that was nearly lapping at the house’s foundation. All of this occurred in just a few short hours, and we still had yet to reach maximum high tide.

A washed out road in Ewell harbor.

By this time I had been on the Island for a few hours, and it would soon be time for me  to return to St. Mary’s. On my walk back to the ferryboat, a few kids whizzed by me on their  bicycles, evidence of the next generation of Smith Islanders.

It was these two images that captured my experience on Smith Island that day. As the ferry boat bobbed its way homeward across the bay, I continued to turn them over in my mind. Seeing kids speeding across the Island on their bicycles, soaking in the last warmth of the year, is a near-universal childhood experience.

A backyard tidal wetland.

Meanwhile, having a backyard tidal wetland is not at all a common fixture of an American upbringing. I wondered if the children knew or understood the gravity of their situation, whether they grasped that they might outlive their Island home. The children, however, seemed content to zip through the tidepools on their bikes, laughing as the tires sprayed bay water back up at them.

Despite my education on the subject, the concept climate injustice still conjures visions of far-flung locales in the Pacific, or remote communities devastated by climate-change-induced wildfires. Visiting Smith Island and witnessing climate impacts first hand immediately shifted my viewpoint; climate injustice can occur mere miles from our homes and affect people just like me. And, if climate change effects can be so severe in one of the wealthiest regions of the United States, we can better understand how generational poverty and severe underinvestment compound climate change challenges in those distant Pacific islands. Because of anthropogenic climate injustice, unless we take rapid action, riding bikes through floodwaters may indeed become a universal childhood experience, not just for Smith Islanders, but for residents of similar low-lying communities around the world.

RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Nathan Villiger – St. Mary’s College of Maryland 

Nathan Villiger is a senior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland majoring in environmental studies and political  science. In addition, he manages the Kate Chandler Campus Community Farm and writes and edits for  the St. Mary’s student paper The Point News.