Canary in a climate coal mine


Smith Island is Maryland’s last inhabited offshore island group. The island may be an indicator of things to come, a canary in the climate coal mine, for millions of people along the world’s coasts. MITCH TRAPHAGEN PHOTO

SMITH ISLAND, MD – The argument over the causes of climate change are ongoing, largely split along partisan lines, however what is becoming much less arguable is that the climate is indeed changing. Global temperature averages are on the rise and that rise appears to be accelerating. Heat trapping carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have reached levels supposedly not seen on this planet in millions of years. Satellites and scientific survey missions are providing proof that glaciers and the polar icecaps are melting. The growing seasons in much of the nation’s heartland have changed, sometimes with wild swings in weather conditions from year to year. Storms that were only recently thought of as 100-year events appear to be happening with increasing frequency.

While the argument about whether or not human activity has had an influence in the changing climate will no doubt continue for the foreseeable future, that argument matters little to the few hundred residents of Smith Island, located near the center of the Chesapeake Bay. Smith Island, people say, is sinking.

Smith Island has been inhabited for nearly 400 years. Accessible only by boat, it is Maryland’s last remaining inhabited offshore island group in the Chesapeake Bay. The quiet island, previously best known for a unique variation of a British dialect that stretches back centuries and for extraordinary multi-layered cakes, is suddenly a newsmaker. Recently, the state decided against using federal funds provided for relief from Superstorm Sandy for actual relief on Smith Island. The state instead wants to use some of the money to buy people out, to relocate them off the island, effectively bringing an end to centuries of life —a way of life that is already disappearing.

Viewed from afar, a crisis on Smith Island appears imminent. With the government seemingly throwing up their hands in surrender to nature are articles and editorials in Maryland’s largest newspaper suggesting that islanders shouldn’t vent anger at state officials who, for all intents and purposes, are calling for the evacuation of the island, but instead should write to federal officials and congressional leaders demanding that something be done about climate change. A noble, far-looking sentiment, perhaps, but of little value to those living on the island hoping to maintain their way of life.

Technically, Smith Island isn’t sinking — it is eroding. Adding to that problem is a rising sea level. It is estimated that the island has lost more than 3,300 acres over the past 150 years. Roughly 900 acres of the island are habitable.

Today the population of the island, approximately 260 people, is based in three small towns. A road connects two of the towns; the third is accessible to the others only by boat. The population is also eroding, after reaching a peak of more than 800 people in 1910. It has been nearly 40 years since a baby was born on the island, the last practicing doctor closed up shop in 1987 and there is no law enforcement, nor is there a need for it. The island is a peaceful summer respite for some from the crowded metropolitan area surrounding Washington, DC, but it remains a working island. It is a place where men make a living off the sea, just as their ancestors have done for centuries, and a place where a handful of women make cakes.

Making distinctive multi-layered Smith Island cakes at the Smith Island Baking Company. Smith Island is Maryland’s last inhabited offshore island group. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Captain Otis Tayler has been running a passenger-only ferry service and mail boat between Crisfield, Maryland, and Smith Island for 30 years. It is a business that has been in his family for more than a century. Captain Otis knows the way to the island; he knows the island. He is incensed that people in power are making decisions based on something they have never seen.

“The governor has never been here,” Captain Otis said. “Our congressman has never been here. This island is better today than it was years ago.”

Also viewed from afar, it was initially difficult to arrange transport to the island. Captain Otis doesn’t have a webpage; two ferry captains said they would only make the trip for a group of people, not for one person and I was the only person asking for that day. Susan of Susan’s on Smith Island Bed and Breakfast said she would make sure I could get to the island. I met Captain Otis on the dock in Crisfield and an hour later was in the island town of Ewell, wondering if I would be among the last to ever see it.

There are only a few roads on the island, two miles of paved road in total, and the handful of shops close up by 3 p.m. It is a cash island with only the museum accepting credit cards. There are no bars, nor is there alcohol for sale. The few roads, however, are active with a handful of cars and a number of golf carts. Some people drive around to pass the time and, as such, as a visitor you’ll see the same people over and over again while walking or riding a bike around town. Despite that, each time you see them, they will wave to you.

At the Smith Island Baking Company, three women formed a production line of sorts producing Smith Island cakes, a distinctive cake of 10 to 17 thin layers with a fudge frosting. The cakes are unique to the island and date back to the 1800s with wives making something special to send husbands off for a hard day of working the water. Today, the baking company, headquartered in an old house across the street from the small post office, is owned by an investor in Washington who reportedly regularly makes the long drive to Crisfield, followed by the nearly hour ferry ride to the island. He also manages the intricate task of getting supplies to his business using the ferries and his cakes shipped out to customers around the world. In theory, he could save a lot of time and trouble by relocating the baking company to Baltimore or another major city but then, as he has been quoted saying, they wouldn’t be Smith Island cakes.

I was the only guest at Susan’s Bed and Breakfast on a recent Thursday night but the following weekend all three of her rooms were booked. It took less than an hour to tour the island on one of Susan’s bicycles and also less than an hour to realize that while Smith Island may well be imperiled by the future, it is not imperiled by the present. The island is functioning now as it has for the past four centuries. Perhaps even better, as it is increasingly an island of respite from the madness that can exist just 12 miles away on the mainland. What is more imperiled is the way of life. Many of the islanders see the offer of buyouts as a sure-fire way to accelerate what is already in slow decline. Like the cakes, ironically Maryland’s State Cake, some things simply can’t be replicated elsewhere.

Smith Island is, perhaps, the canary in the climate coal mine; an indicator of what could be to come for millions of Americans living along the coasts, including Florida. Perhaps especially Florida.

According to the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, sea level had been rising an average of 1.8 millimeters per year from the end of what is known as the “Little Ice Age” of the mid 1800s until 1990. Since 1990, however, sea level has been rising an average of 3.1 millimeters per year and that rate is expected to increase. Furthermore, 4.9 million people in the nation live at an elevation of four feet or less above sea level. Of those, 2.4 million are in Florida. There are 107 towns and cities in the state in which half or more of the population lives at four feet or less. If there is indeed an imminent risk from rising waters, Florida is Smith Island on steroids in terms of that risk.

Unlike Smith Island, however, no one is calling for the evacuation of 2.4 million people in Florida, nor would that be possible in any given instant. But if the water continues to rise, it may happen gradually, of course. A summit of environmental scientists held by the Center for Environmental Studies at FAU concluded that short term measures, such as mangrove buffers, will be needed but they aren’t a long-term solution, they merely buy time. But in a world of uncertainty, there is little more valuable than time.

Captain Otis Tayler has been running the ferry and mail boat for more than 30 years. Mitch Traphagen Photo

“If they [state and federal governments] had taken all of the money they spent on studies to actually do something we wouldn’t have a problem,” Captain Otis said. The erosion on the island is evident and pockmarked around the habitable coast is evidence of people attempting to do something about it, with pockets of riprap consisting of everything from broken chunks of concrete to old, rusted engines protecting sections of the coastline.

The FAU summit concluded that measures will need to be taken as parts of Florida’s infrastructure, including the fresh water supply, are already being impacted by higher tides. They also pointed to the Gulf Coast city of Punta Gorda, with an adaption plan that includes planned relocation.

It is possible a climatic tipping point has already passed. It is also possible there was no tipping point, that nothing can change the inevitable of a changing climate. Planning for and accommodating climate changes are necessary and that is already happening by the nation’s food producers and others. If predictions hold true, even if governments don’t act, insurance companies most certainly eventually would.

Today, as it has for much of its long history, almost everything in the Smith Island town of Ewell is centered around the church. It is a gathering place; it is the dominant structure and the physical center of the community. Faith is important here. While life in an isolated place can be idyllic, it can also be hard. Yet there is faith here in today and in tomorrow. You can stand in front of the church and stomp your foot on the ground and it feels solid, just as it did when British settlers arrived 400 years ago. Perhaps things will be different in the next decade or in the next ten decades but today, Smith Island is as real as are the homes and communities of 2.4 million people in low-lying Florida.

People pass by and wave, a few stop to chat. “You’re staying at Susan’s, right?” they ask. It’s a small town; of course they would know that. Ten or twenty minutes later, they’ll pass by and wave again. The fishing boats come and go and Captain Otis loads up mail on the Island Belle II to take to Crisfield. By 3 p.m., all five businesses are closed for the day. It is a special place, an increasingly rare place in a fast-paced world. Smith Island has, perhaps, always been imperiled, but there is faith in today.

Today, Smith Island isn’t going anywhere.

For information about Smith Island, visit

For information about Susan’s On Smith Island Bed & Breakfast, visit

For information about the 2012 FAU CES summit, visit

An interesting interactive map showing the possible effects of rising sea levels may be found at

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