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How Climate Change Is Changing The Coastline Of The Chesapeake Bay

"If the projections are right, then we're already committed to a heartbreaking amount of loss, like a truly devastating amount of loss."

Posted on November 2, 2021, at 10:04 a.m. ET

Michael O. Snyder

A projected map showing where the new coastline for the Chesapeake Bay will be under worst-case scenario projections

How do you see the future? That is the vexing question that Michael O. Snyder, a scientist turned photographer, seeks to answer in his recent project, The Coming Coast.

Snyder spent the pandemic traveling around the Chesapeake Bay, talking with residents about how the predicted 6 feet of sea level rise under the worst-case scenario of rapid global warming would affect them, and the places they love. The project is both poignant and specific — for some areas, 6 feet has a huge impact, while for others, not much would seem to change at all.

The relative nature of climate change makes it difficult for communities and nations to formulate one-size-fits-all solutions. The area around the Chesapeake Bay, which is the largest estuary system in the United States, is also home to almost 19 million people and includes big cities, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Unlike in other coastal cities, where storm surge is an issue, the bay area is sinking — meaning the water is often rising up from the ground itself — and seawalls to protect against rising waters are ineffective. Estuaries are unique ecosystems where salty seawater mixes with fresh water from rivers, making them an ideal habitat for a variety of wildlife, including the blue crabs and oysters that the area is known for.

The balance between the bay and the humans who live around it has been going on for thousands of years, but climate change may result in widespread migration from the area. Already, with more than 1 degree Celsius of warming on average worldwide since the late 1880s, cities are offering buyouts for homes that repeatedly flood, although many residents either don't want to leave their homes or can't afford to go elsewhere. Exactly how much more warming occurs over the coming century depends on how quickly humans stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The worst-case scenario is increasingly unlikely as countries take more action to address the crisis, but it’s still not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Snyder took the time to speak with BuzzFeed News about his project and to share excerpts of his interviews with those who are already being impacted. These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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A wooden path with a blue tape across the middle
Michael O. Snyder

A line of tape shows where the new coastline will be under worst-case scenario projections.

What was the process of bringing this project together?

For the last seven years, I have been documenting sea level rise around the US, looking at both the impacts and what communities are doing about it, what solutions are they pioneering. I was awarded a climate journalism fellowship through the Bertha Foundation in 2020 to continue this work. And then COVID hit...and I had to completely rethink my approach to the story.

So the question that underlies The Coming Coast was how to make the often invisible nature of sea level rise more visible. I decided to work in the Chesapeake Bay because it is ground zero for sea level rise. The first thing I did was to map what sea level rise will look like. I worked with Climate Central’s mapping tools and used their data to generate maps showing what sea level rise could be by the year 2100 if we don’t get much more serious about mitigating climate change.

Step two was to travel around the Chesapeake Bay and follow this new coastline. I used thick blue painter’s tape and placed it throughout these communities to show where the coastline is going to be sometime between now and 2100. It was actually quite difficult to put the tape right where the line will be — I was just in too many people's properties — so instead I decided to create a coastline that will be sometime between now and the year 2100. Obviously it's imperfect, but it gives you a general sense. A lot of these places where I worked are quite dry right now. And they are everyday places that you might go to, like a public park or a backyard or a parking lot.

I used a drone to take photographs of four communities on the Bay Hundred peninsula of Maryland. These were: St Michael's, Oxford, Bellevue, and Tilghman. They all have different socioeconomic and racial compositions and histories. Using those maps that I had generated with the climate central data, I painted into the drone photos where that sea level rise could be by the year 2100.

Finally, I chose 30 individuals from around the Chesapeake Bay. I wanted to get as diverse of a group as possible, because climate change is one of these issues that is going to impact everybody. I took a portrait of each person and asked them to stand in a spot that mattered to them, and in that spot I asked them to hold a depth stick that would show what 6 feet of sea level rise would look like for that location.

These are very different people. They have some things in common, they may or may not like each other, but they are on the same team. And of course the big question is: Are these communities going to try to migrate away from the coast? Or are they going to try to build up? It is not just a question of the impacts, it is also a question of privilege: What ability does that community have to survive? And it is very unevenly distributed.

A man wearing flip flops stands outside holding a depth marker
Michael O. Snyder

"Areas like this, if there is no economic viability here, then there are no tax dollars to help solve a problem like sea level rise. You see? We have to save the economy first, and for me that’s the seafood industry. We cannot sit back and wait for it to hit us in the face and then decide that we've got to do it. Otherwise, it will all be lost.

"The watermen here are extremely driven. Salt of the earth people. They’ve fought for generations to survive. Our way of life, we don’t want to lose it. But we've got to be we got to be willing to change a bit in order to maintain it. We’ve got to build sustainable solutions in order for future generations to have success here. Not only economic success, but environmental success. That's just how it is."

—Johnny Shockley, standing in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

What was your journey from studying environmentalism and geology to being a photographer and how does one feed the other?

My studies made one thing abundantly clear to me: If you take the time to look closely at environmental issues, you come to the conclusion that the way in which we are currently living simply isn’t sustainable. Our overconsumption of natural resources is undermining the fabric of our economy and eroding the health of the natural systems on which we depend.

I think the biggest challenge in front of us is about changing the narrative about what it means to live well on this planet without destroying it. So that is where I work; I’m a visual storyteller. It is a really exciting time to be doing this work because there are so many great stories to share.

Can you talk a little bit about some of the narratives around climate change — what are narratives that you think should be promoted more and what are ones that drive you absolutely wild?

The narrative that bothers me the most is the idea that this is a problem that can't be solved. I think that's simply not true. The transition isn’t going to be an easy one, and we do have hard decisions to make, but our fate is fundamentally in our hands. We have the opportunity in front of us to create a world that is not only more sustainable, but also more diverse, fulfilling, and equitable. So it just doesn't serve us to put our hands up in the air and be fatalistic about this issue.

The second, and related, narrative that bothers me is the “disaster narrative.” We know from the research that disaster narratives inspire people to act, to a certain extent, but for those messages to be truly effective and durable, we need to couple the “bad news” with narratives about agency, solutions, and hope. Because people need to see that there are solutions and that a better world is possible. If we only give people the bad news, they tend to retract from the issues and move toward more nihilistic, self-serving attitudes and behaviors.

Finally, I am not a big fan of the “us versus them” narrative. Because when it comes to climate change, there is only “us.” And, while we don’t need to win everybody over to the cause, we do need to capture a critical mass of the population if we want to create change that is both meaningful and durable. And we just aren’t there yet. So we have to build bigger tents. We have to create better coalitions and have better conversations. We need to learn to listen to people who we think are different from us. We have to find out where we overlap and build trust from that position. We are only going to be as strong as our community bonds — our connections with each other and with the natural world. That sense of community is essential.

A home and glass front door with a blue line around it
Michael O. Snyder

A line of tape shows where the new coastline will be under worst-case-scenario projections.

The Washington Monument in the distance, with a blue tape on its nearby grass
Michael O. Snyder

A line of tape shows where the new coastline will be under worst-case-scenario projections.

What are the already visible effects in the Chesapeake Bay?

The most visible things are all these ghost forests. What's happening is the salt water is coming up and getting on the roots. Even if the trees are a little bit further away, it's just that the salty groundwater is penetrating and slowly killing these trees, so you have these huge swaths of forest that are becoming these sticks, like tree skeletons. That's all along the East Coast. The other one is certainly sunny day flooding. It's just becoming much more common now that I can't drive to work consistently in this direction because that high tide, that road is going to be underwater. And so more and more people are making plans around that.

The people that have the long-term perspective, that have owned a property for 50 years, 40 years, they can say, This was dry, and now it's mud every day. People talk about farmland that used to be there, and now it's not.

Are there any final thoughts about this that I didn't touch on that you really want to make sure get discussed?

I had a somber realization in making this project. If the projections are right, then we're already committed to a heartbreaking amount of loss, like a truly devastating amount of loss. It’s happening now. The coming coast is already here. And if that's the case, then the question becomes less about how do we save what's there — not that we shouldn't try — but it's more about how do we migrate meaningfully? How do we hold onto these identities and these cultures and these identities that have been connected to place for hundreds, if not thousands of years? I just think we're going to have to have that conversation very, very soon.

Science can give us a really good sense for the projections of the future. But the truth is we don't know. It's still important to work from those projections, but maybe we're going to come up with a really great way to do carbon capture and storage? Maybe fusion energy is around the corner? Maybe this coastline won't happen to the extent that it is predicted. I'm willing to be happily surprised. History is the study of surprises. But, in the meanwhile, we have to get to work talking about what we are going to do to mitigate impact, and to preserve the identities and cultures of frontline communities, like those along the Chesapeake Bay.

David Givens, Jamestown, Virginia

A man in a Black puffer jacket holding a depthmarker.
Michael O. Snyder

Jamestown is, in so many ways, America’s birthplace. It’s the location of the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, started in 1607. In 1619, the first enslaved Africans landed here. Here was the first contact with Virginia Indians. The first codified laws and representative assembly in British North America were here. It’s an amazing place to work as an archeologist.

The island is a series of dissected ridges, which the English very quickly learned to drain. Salt water has always been a problem here. The settlers, when they began to dig wells, first they had some fresh water, but then, slowly, they began to drink salt water, which, of course, destroys your kidneys. Some historians thought the Spanish poisoned them. But it was likely the salt water and bacteria from chamber pots and the dead. So, living with water all around has always been an issue. And the island is sinking; this place is naturally subsiding by about 0.01 millimeters a year.

But, with climate change, things are accelerating now. I've been here for over 25 years, and we used to play soccer right here in John Smith’s field. Now, if you look, it’s a mud hole. And the trends show that we’re in big trouble. It’s something that is happening now because what most people don’t realize is that water is actually coming up from the ground. Even though we have a sea wall, the water is coming in underneath and it pushes upward on the water table and displaces it. And we're always mindful that history is continuum, so there's 400 years of stuff to lose out here. In the meanwhile, we have to keep doing the archeology. Because we might only have a very short period of time before it is washed away. It’s depressing.

For the English, this place has a 400-year-old story. For Indigenous peoples, it’s 12,000 years old. And throughout that history, there were always challenges, adaptation, and change. History is malleable. And people often don’t really understand the moment that they are in. But you do what you need to do.

Imani Black, Cambridge, Maryland

A woman wearing a T-shirt that says "minorities in aquaculture"
Michael O. Snyder

This is Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, Maryland. And this is the first place that I realized that I wanted to dive into bay conservation and restoration. I'm a faculty member here now. And in the fall of this year, I'll be a full-time grad student.

In general, African American stories of working on the Chesapeake Bay have been lost and actively forgotten over the years. I was no exception to that case. It wasn't until my mom started diving into our family genealogy, that I found out that I’ve had waterman in my family for a long time, probably since the 1800s. And so, I think that makes it even more special that I want to do it. I’ve recently started a non-profit organization called Minorities in Aquaculture. And the goal is to educate people, in general, about aquaculture and sustainability, but specifically, women who are a minority in a male-dominated field, and even more specifically, women of color, who are a double minority. I wanted to start an organization to help close that gap and take out the obstacles that minorities go through when it comes to getting internships, and mentorships, and access to financing.

But climate change and sea level rise are a big threat to what we are doing. Oysters, in particular, are very temperamental creatures. They face a lot of threats, but ocean acidification, which is caused by climate change, is a big one. But, you know, the great thing about farm-raised oysters is that they're designed and cultivated to handle those kinds of fluctuations in salinity, temperature, and PH. So sustainable aquaculture is going to have a big role to play in the future as things keep changing more quickly. Right now, we're putting millions and millions of oysters out there in multiple different tributaries. These can go from farm to table in three years, and in one year they can filter 19 trillion gallons of water in the bay. Sea level rise is the other big threat because it is going to wipe out wetlands and so many historical spaces, like generational homes and occupational history, in a matter of 15 to 20 years. Recently, it’s been great to see diversity and inclusion as a part of the conversation about conservation. But we need to set tangible goals, rather than just aspirations. The fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay are a national treasure and the Black community has always been a part of that. For me, sustainable aquaculture is going to be the way to keep it going.

Angela, James, Kelly, Rose, and Jay Ramsay, Norfolk, Virginia

A family of five white people with their arms around each other
Michael O. Snyder

If you look in our backyard, it’s pretty much always flooded now. Our dog plays in the mud in our backyard, and even when it hasn’t rained in seven days, he’s still muddy. The water has nowhere to go. We’ve got a sump pump in the basement, but there’s constant standing water. And we have a French drain that we built here in our backyard, but it did nothing. It was a total waste of $10,000.

Here at the end of the street, you see that big patch? That was a sinkhole that was open for a long time, because the pipes just crack and the street opens up. And you see that gross standing water? See that nice green tinge? Yeah, that’s sewage. I feel like that is always there now. In some places around here, the City of Norfolk is buying the houses outright and then demolishing and giving the land back to the river. So you have some checkerboarded neighborhoods with empty lots. The other option is to elevate the house, and a lot of people are doing that. But it’s ugly and expensive. We bought a new AC unit and had it lifted. But I don’t want to lift my house. And I don’t want to sell either. I mean, it would be hard to move. We love it here. We love this neighborhood. And, honestly, a lot of people can’t sell their houses, and the buyouts aren’t great anyway.

And then we're just steadily building more houses, which infuriates me. The people who buy those houses, no one tells them about the flooding. People have come in with expensive cars and many of them have gone completely underwater or been washed away. I feel bad for them. But, of course, you also have people who want to get the insurance money, and they go park their car at the end of the road and let it drift off into the sunset.

When we get the really big events and everything closes down, the kids will go out and play in the water and even kayak around. The water is really gross though, so we hose them off when they come home.

Everyone here knows when it's going to flood. We all have an app on our phone that we pay attention to. One of my good friends who lives down the street, he'll post on Facebook or Nextdoor, he’ll say, “Move your cars. There’s a high tide tonight.” It’s just part of our lives now. Climate change might be an abstraction for some people, but for us it’s real.

Donald Webster, Dorchester County, Maryland

An older man wearing jeans and muddy boots.
Michael O. Snyder

This is a ghost forest. The salt water is coming in and killing these trees. And there are thousands of acres of this, like sticks standing out in the marsh. There was once a thriving timber business here, but it’s all gone now, because when you harvest the trees, the land underneath just gets wetter, and it will never support trees again. It’s like we are looking at the very last harvest here. We’re living on borrowed time.

As best as I can tell from people I've talked to, there's always been sea level rise. But I think it has got to the point where it is happening faster and really became noticeable. It’s really accelerated in the last 20 years. There’s a place where I used to fish when I was a kid and, well, where I stand today to fish is a half mile further inland. Sometimes I can hardly believe it. I’ve been a farmer now for 34 years. I know one guy that’s lost near 100 acres to salt water. In fact, there's people doing studies just now trying to figure out what crops you can grow best in salty fields.

If you don't live here, I think it's out of sight, out of mind. But if you’re here, it is pretty mind-blowing to see what is happening. Already 30% of this county is in a flood zone. And how are you going to keep the roads above water? Because, as sea level rises, you can't just keep putting blacktop on blacktop and marsh, because it just keeps sinking. So people leave, and the tax base evaporates, and houses get abandoned. And new people aren’t buying places down here. I can’t see a young couple making a living down here. I'm not smart enough to tell you how to change this. And I'm not sure anybody can. I do know that we have some hard decisions to make. But if there's small solutions to this problem that everybody can do, then why not? We have to try.

A lot of the old-timers were deniers, and you know, I can understand that. And even today, a lot of people can’t stand to bring it up at all. Because, you have to understand, this is heartbreaking. Can you imagine losing your place? Folks here wouldn’t rather live anywhere else on Earth, you know. They’re proud of that. So it is really hard for people to admit it or talk about it. But if you can’t see it now, you never will.

We've lost islands in the bay in the past, and people have had to move off and make a living someplace else. The people here are strong. They will do it again. But it just won’t be here. And that’s heartbreaking, if I’m honest.

Alice Volpitta, Baltimore, Maryland

A woman stands in front of the Baltimore skyline, the water lapping at her feet.
Michael O. Snyder

The very first time I ever saw a real live sewage overflow, it changed my life. Which sounds crazy! That's not really the kind of life-changing experience that you want to hear about. But it really did, because I realized for the first time how important all of this is and how nobody knows anything about it. Like, nobody teaches you about urban infrastructure in school, but we are totally dependent on it. And the situation is really bad.

We're supposed to have this dedicated sewage system that goes to the treatment plants, and then a dedicated stormwater system that just dumps into our local waterways. But the pipes, they're old and leaky and overflowing, so we end up with an accidental combined system. So we have sewage mixing everywhere. A lot of people have this misconception that water in stormwater pipes gets treated or cleaned or whatever. And it's just not true. It’s just there to convey water. That's all it does. This is a long-standing problem that is being made much worse by climate change. Because now we get these really intense, hyperlocalized rain bursts, that cause flash flooding into these overburdened pipes. Our pipes are just too small capacity to handle this kind of event, so they mix into the sewage pipes, back up, and cause sewage to explode out into the streets. This isn’t theoretical. It’s happening. We see it, and we can measure it.

Then, at the same time, we have sea level rise, which is rising up into the outflow of the pipes, filling them with seawater, and causing a serious capacity reduction. So when all of that storm water starts gushing through the pipes, instead of just emptying out into the waterways like it was designed to do, it just backs up, and we’ve got sewage flowing through our streets. We used to have a couple hundred of these events every year, but just last year alone we had over 7,000 sewage backups in the city of Baltimore City. Yeah, it’s nasty. And it’s not just the explosive events. There's a constant low-level trickle of sewage entering our waterways all the time. It’s an enormous, disgusting problem, and it’s only getting worse. And the sad thing is, it’s not just people who are being impacted, it’s the environment too. This water right here is teeming with life. The sewage is really high in nutrients, so it causes algal blooms, which chokes off all of the oxygen in the water and causes major die-offs.

I’m the Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper and I work with Blue Water Baltimore. And we’ve got to hold the city accountable to keep it on track to fix this problem. But the situation is only going to get more challenging with climate change, and it’s not going away any time soon.

Vincent Leggett, Annapolis, Maryland

A man stands on the beach holding a depth marker
Michael O. Snyder

I grew up in Baltimore. And my dad was a hunter and fisherman. And that's how I got my initial introduction to life on the Chesapeake Bay, that's when I really got the salt water running in my veins. So I’ve always called myself a country boy from East Baltimore.

I noticed that in books on the Chesapeake Bay, very seldom you will see people of color. If you did see them, the caption was just “crab picker” and no other information. We launched the Blacks of the Chesapeake as a project, to document the contributions that African Americans have made to the maritime and seafood processing industries. And not only were African Americans integral in the seafood processing industries, but they were also boatbuilders, and business owners of seafood restaurants, and processing plants, and African American boating and yacht clubs. When we started this project, people were saying, Well, Blacks weren't explorers, Blacks can't swim, Blacks can't sail, Blacks can't fly. And of course, they could, and they did. For me, it's really been about discovering things hidden in plain sight. It's one thing to not have our African American history told. It’s another thing to be airbrushed out. And that’s what happened. So, we are trying to recover that and, at the same time, trying to lift up a downtrodden people. And, as an educator, I know how important it is for kids to see strong people that look like them. That can make a big difference in a kid’s life.

African American communities on the bay, they often wound up living in the swamps, because that was low-bottom land. Low value, high mosquitos. You couldn’t grow tobacco, so it wasn’t useful. But, of course, these are the places that have been impacted by sea level rise. One of the things that we saw in Louisiana, during Hurricane Katrina, was the problem of air properties in these African American shoreline communities. The whole concept of an air property is there's not a clear title to the land. What happened is that a piece of land had been handed down from one generation to another, but it was always collectively owned. In African American and Indigenous traditions, nobody owns the dirt. We're just stewards. See? And so that value gets lost. And so that is something that I’ve thought about here in the bay with African American communities as the seas start to rise. How will we make sure that folks living on air properties are protected?

And so, with Blacks of the Chesapeake, we are now thinking about not only stories that we capture, but environmental justice, climate change, racial equity, ecology. I mean, it's all connected. A lot of people talk about formal education as the key to creating this change. It’s important, but it’s not the total key. You’ve got to put people in a position where they can better understand either other, rather than leave the table further apart. So I try to distill it down to the basics. Do you want clean water? Do you want a safe place to raise a kid? Because, once you start talking about parts per million, they are all going to disengage. So the change comes from thousands of small conversations that brings things down to lived experiences. It’s sharing our stories and finding out how we connect. That is what counts.

Rev. Dan Dunlap, Old Trinity Church, Woolford, Maryland

A priest holds a depth marker in front of a gravesite.
Michael O. Snyder

This is Old Trinity Church. We don't know exactly when it was built. Our sign out here says 1692, but it’s older than that. Perhaps the 1670s. It was one of the earliest expressions of our faith on the Eastern Shore. It’s a place where people have connected with nature and with their creator for more than 300 years.

And the truth is, erosion has been happening here for centuries. Places like James Island and Holland Island are already gone. But now, in addition to being a place that is sinking, we have anthropocentric climate change as well. So it’s a double whammy.

But when we talk about climate change, the first thing is that, you’ve got to meet people where they're at. Everyone knows that, for example, erosion is a problem. Even if you are a climate denier, you know that things are changing. So we can start with that. For me, having this conversation is about being present and being an example, rather than preaching. I'm a preacher. I know that preaching to someone who doesn't want to be preached to has the opposite result than I intended it to have. So being present means being welcoming.

Twenty years ago, we realized that the shoreline was under severe erosion. It was bad. we built a living shoreline here, around the property. It’s basically re-creating a little marsh, closer to what the original shoreline would have been like. It’s designed to have water spill over the breaks and into all of these different kinds of grasses here. We were one of the earliest adopters of the living shoreline idea, at least in this area.

But ultimately, you know, there is a natural birth and a natural death for all things. Even for this church. It was founded back in the 1600s, and someday it will be gone. A century? A thousand years? I don’t know. God gives everything a beginning and an end. Things have their purpose for a time. And while this is here, and it exists for this purpose, we need to make sure that we take care of it. And so, we try to be responsible and to preserve things. We may be fighting a losing battle. And if that's the case, then someday we have to be able to say goodbye. Because, I don’t see a way to move the church or the graves. The church is as much connected to this land as the land is connected to the church. So this place is transitory. Life is transitory. Not even the pyramids will last forever. But in the time that we do have, we have to enjoy it and be responsible for it. We are just stewards. ●

Additional reporting by Zahra Hirji.


A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.