On one of the most vulnerable islands in America, a longtime caretaker makes peace with climate change.
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.
“Maintenance,” he said with a shrug, “is just common sense.”
Ennis’s work has helped nudge planners toward a rather Zen proposal. For the first time, humans would try to adapt to the island, instead of adapting the island to their own needs.
The balance between sand and sea
Places like Assateague are a constantly shifting compromise between the sand and the sea. Gentle waves nourish the beach; stiffer waves scour it. The angle between the waves and the beach matters as well. Waves rarely hit an island dead-on. They approach obliquely, and the net effect on Assateague is that the sand is shunted southward.
The other way that the ocean shapes a barrier island occurs during a storm, when the waves wash over, carrying sediment across the island. The storms sometimes also cut inlets, which usher through great quantities of sand. These processes add bulk to the landward side, making the island wider.
In this fashion, the island rolls slowly landward, a couple of feet or more a year.
The problem arises when people start building on these formations. Eventually, the island will migrate out from underneath them. Climate change will only accelerate the process.
So to protect their homes and their investments against the ocean, many barrier island communities rely on feats of engineering. They strengthen dunes to bulwark against the sea. They bring in dredged sand to replenish the beach. They build jetties to trap sand from moving down the coast, or even erect sea walls to blunt the scouring action of the waves. On densely packed islands, where people’s homes are at stake, these measures can seem like no-brainers despite the exorbitant price tags and damage to the environment.
On Assateague, which is uninhabited and owned by the government, the debate is slightly different. What’s at stake are recreational facilities, and the ability for people to access and enjoy the island — its famous feral horses, the ghost forests of drowned loblolly pines. Nearby towns rely on the Assateague for the 2 million tourists it brings in each year. Citizens lobby for more infrastructure on the island, more amenities to attract visitors.
Every national park has a guiding document that lays out a general course of action for the next few decades. Assateague’s old management plan dates from 1982. It bears little mention of climate change, nor does it seem to respect that barrier islands are naturally dynamic.
At that point, the Park Service was certainly aware of the science. An internal history of Assateague written in the ’80s noted, ominously, if conditionally: “The consequences of accepting the new view were profound. If islands like Assateague were inherently unstable, the feasibility of such development as had been mandated by the Assateague legislation was highly questionable.”
There were other warnings. “We are actually transplanting out cities onto barrier islands from mainland areas with the idea that these areas are just as stable as any other landforms,” one report from a 1980 Park Service conference read.
Ennis started his first summer as a seasonal worker that same year. He recalls being told that Assateague’s phalanx of artificial dunes were interfering with the island’s evolution. “It was brought up that it was very unnatural,” he said. “The island needs to turn over itself.”
But there is theory, and there is putting theory into practice. Ennis filed the thought in the back of his head, and returned to picking up trash.
Sisyphus’s sand dune
Ennis spent the first half of his career maintaining the artificial dune at Tom’s Cove, where he worked as a maintenance foreman.
The dune stopped most waves from spilling across the island, protecting the visitor’s center and bathrooms from getting flooded. But stopping the overwash also starved the landward side of sediment. And, as the beach in front of the dune continued to erode, this section of the island grew thinner. And thinner.
The fortified dune did not offer complete protection either. Waves from a determined northeaster or hurricane could punch through, and the storms whipped up other kinds of damage.
Ennis’s job was to patch up the buildings in the aftermath. Sometimes, this also meant rebuilding the facilities farther and farther back from the narrowing beach. The visitor’s center, for instance, has retreated three times to escape the encroaching sea.
“Let’s face it, down there the area is very dynamic, and things were changing pretty rapidly,” Ennis said. “We were constantly building dunes to keep the ocean back but the ocean’s not going to stay back.”
By the mid ’90s, Ennis was growing weary of these efforts. So were his bosses. So were his crew members. “They saw just how ridiculous it was to maintain a dune, to keep these hard fixed structures,” he said.
Instead of permanent buildings, they wondered, what if they had portable ones? Structures that could be collected in a storm, and repositioned in step with the evolving beach?
Recently, Ennis gave a tour of some of the inventions he and his team devised. At Tom’s Cove, nearly every beachside amenity can now be taken apart and hauled away in the event of a storm. The showers are powered by a portable solar-panel array. The changing stalls are a Park Service design made of pipe and white canvas panels. And the toilets — Ennis is exceptionally proud of his MacGuyvered toilets, which are prefabricated units that were modified so they can be carried in and out with a forklift.
“We had an environmental audit,” Ennis recalled, “and one of the comments was ‘boy, it seems like a lot of what you do is toilets’—it is!”
The portable structures were rolled out slowly over the course of a decade, supplementing but not supplanting the permanent buildings. A brutal set of storms in the ’90s hastened some of the changeover. One northeaster in 1998 eroded the shore by nearly the span of a football field in some places. These storms damaged the artificially maintained dunes near the beach at Tom’s Cove, and a decision was made to led the dunes go natural.
“What we realized is that in order to keep the island as healthy as possible, we needed to let the natural processes happen,” said Patricia Kicklighter, who served as Assateague’s superintendent from 2009 to 2013. “In order for the island to have any future, it needs to have that rollover.”
And if the island was going to roll over, then the buildings were just going to have to roll with it.
The fragile island
In 2009, the Obama administration ordered agencies overseeing federal land to explicitly account for climate change in their planning processes.
When Kicklighter took over Assateague that same year, she made climate change the central issue of the new management plan, which is still in draft form.
Assateague was one of the first national parks to conduct this decision making specifically with different climate change scenarios in mind. Recent studies suggest that barrier islands all along the Atlantic are at a threshold. If the sea starts to rise any faster — as even the most conservative models predict — these places may start to rapidly migrate or break apart. Recognizing Assateague’s fragility, several different courses of action were proposed.
The most promising one calls for minimal interference with the island’s rollover or possible fragmentation. There would be ferries to make up for any losses in beachfront parking. If the aging bridge on the island’s north side crumbled in a storm, it wouldn’t be replaced. Parking lots and buildings would move as necessary. And if the waves split the island in two, they would accept that, and work around the new inlet.
The proposal, if adopted, would represent more of a shift in attitudes than a completely new way to operate. Much of the work of adaptation had already been done, inadvertently, by Ennis and his team of maintenance workers, as they scrambled to figure out what could survive on Assateague.
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.
The improvements that Ennis worked on are being rolled into a coastal adaptation handbook that the Park Service is producing. What should parking lots be made of? Should buildings be put on stilts? When is it practical to cling to the shoreline, and when should say, a historic lighthouse be moved to higher land?
The results of this research will be of no help to the beachfront communities that have decided to dig in. But the knowledge will still be there when the next storm hits, and the next one; as the cost of rebuilding mounts, and people start to reconsider living where the land has been foreclosed on by the sea.
Storms, Ennis said, tend to change people’s minds. Assateague taught him that.
Racing against the rising sea
When Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard in 2012, it gave a preview of the kinds of storms that seaside towns might soon see with increasing frequency.
One of the hardest hit places was Ennis’s hometown of Crisfield, Md. He’d grown up on the outskirts, where his family owned 45 acres of cropland. (“You have to remember I’m an old farm boy,” he likes to say.)
Ennis’s father worked for the county making roads. His mother made silverware at a factory famous for its crab knives, which has since shut down. The seafood industry has suffered all over Crisfield, which once called itself the “Seafood Capital of the World.” Now, the Chesapeake is dirtier, the crabbing no longer so rich. The town has turned to tourism and recreation, touting its marinas and proximity to the Bay.
Crisfield’s chief attraction is also its chief weakness. Sandy lay wreck to the low-lying city, flooding the streets to chest height, at one point even floating coffins out of the ground. Residents have vowed to rebuild, many of them returning to their same homes. There’s been talk of a project to bulk up the barrier islands off the coast to protect the mainland from the waves. Similar stories are playing out up and down the coast.
On a barrier island in New Jersey, two neighboring towns are erecting a 15-foot-tall steel seawall to protect themselves at a cost of $23.8 million. They are also planning to put in 22-foot-tall protective dunes.
In these places, the balance between cost and benefit has not yet tipped in favor of retreat. But more storms are coming.
Ennis himself lives with his wife on adjacent Chincoteague Island, which was also flooded during Sandy. He’ll retire in a couple months, and he’s thinking about making his own retreat to higher ground. Maybe somewhere on the mainland.
“I would say on the outside I got 30 more years — that’d put me damn near 90,” he said. “So some place where sea level isn’t going to be for 30 years ought to do me pretty good.”
He pauses for a second. “That’s pretty morbid isn’t it?” he said. “But that’s the reality isn’t it?”