National Park Service Chief of Maintenance for Assateague Island National Seashore, Ish Ennis, stands along the natural dunes on Assateague Island, Maryland, on 18 November 2014. Photo: J.M. Eddins Jr. / The Washington Post

By Jeff Guo
2 December 2014

BERLIN, Maryland (Washington Post) – At the south end of Assateague Island, on a storm-shaped hook called Tom’s Cove, Ishmael Ennis likes to pace the beach. Autumn Sundays are the best time of year, he said, when the dawn chill clears out the crowds. In those solitary moments, the sands seem vast enough to drown any human concerns.

“No, that’s getting too romantic,” he said, suddenly self-conscious. Ennis, 59, grew up near a crabbing town on the Chesapeake Bay. He’s tall, hay-haired, and speaks with a waterman’s drawl. “I don’t feel nothing too special,” he said. “Just sometimes you’ve got to get away from all the normal stuff. The island offers that.”

Not for long, perhaps.

Assateague, a 37-mile-long smear off the shores of Maryland and Virginia, is the East Coast’s climate change canary. It’s one of the most vulnerable islands in America, almost certain to be one of the first places claimed by the rising sea. As 190 nations began talks on climate change Monday in Peru, barrier islands like Assateague offer a preview of issues countless coastal communities will soon face.

Ennis has worked here for over 34 years, first as a maintenance worker, then as a foreman, now as the chief of maintenance for the National Park Service. In the first half of his career, he fought against nature to save this beach at Tom’s Cove. In the second half of his career, he’s been learning — and teaching others — how to let go.

Barrier islands scroll up and down the Eastern Seaboard, remnants from the Ice Age. They are attractive vacation spots, and several of them have been heavily built upon, like the Jersey Shore or Miami Beach. Much of the construction happened before people fully understood that these places are particularly volatile.

The clues had been accumulating for decades: Beachfronts were thinning. Storms regularly kicked down dunes and sent sand flowing to the far side. Geologists realized that the very nature of barrier islands is to roll over, typically toward the mainland, as waves and weather erode one side and build up the other.

Climate change adds fresh danger. Sea levels are rising faster, and there will be more violent, seashore-scouring storms. In the least aggressive scenario, scientists believe that these effects will accelerate the natural turnover of these islands. In the more aggressive scenarios, climate change will happen too quickly for the islands to keep up. They will either break up or drown.

Assateague is one of the first places in the National Park system to tackle its destiny head-on, forming a master plan for all the contingencies that climate change might bring. The process sets an example for shorelines all along the East Coast, where communities are accelerating toward similar decision: hold fast, or beat a retreat?

In many locales, retreat remains heresy. Politicians vow to keep the bay at bay, or worse: vote to bury forecasts of the rising tides.

But on Assateague, there will be no heroic engineering efforts, no last stands against the sea. For decades, Ennis and his team have been tinkering with the infrastructure here, making it resilient and adaptable long before those words ever passed into the climate change lexicon. […]

Rebecca Beavers, a geologist who coordinates the Park Service’s climate change planning in its coastal areas, has high praise for these efforts. “At this point Assateague is one of the best examples of fully considering climate change within their general management plan,” she said. [more]

The old man and the rising sea

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