- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Thinking about buying a piece of island property with gorgeous views of the Chesapeake Bay?

You might want to remember the Nanticoke American Indians first.

Or the English settlers who lived on the islands centuries ago but then moved to the mainland.

Or the hunters who built lodges less than 100 years ago before their buildings washed away.

In a new book, “The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake,” retired oceanographer William B. Cronin traces more than 500 islands that once dotted the Bay but are now completely or partially under water.

Mr. Cronin cruised the Bay for 30 years as a research scientist for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and became increasingly interested in the people who used to live on Bay islands. Now 90 and living in Silver Spring, Mr. Cronin respects the water.

“The sea always wins,” he said several times in an interview regarding the islands’ loss to erosion and rising sea levels.

The problem, Mr. Cronin says, is getting worse.

The Bay has risen a foot over the past century, a lightning-quick change in geologic time. The waters are rising, he says, because of global warming that is melting glaciers and because people ran water out of the ground, causing the whole East Coast to sink.

The changes are tiny — in some places measurable by just millimeters per year — but the rising waters and resulting erosion have eaten away 10,500 acres of Chesapeake Bay islands over the past 150 years, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

As the Bay’s soft-bottomed islands disintegrate, so does their history.

Nanticoke artifacts and oyster-shell mounds have vanished. Homes and churches have disappeared.

Mr. Cronin remembers interviewing one Bay-area resident — now 94 — who honeymooned in a lodge on Solomons Island and cried when she heard the lodge had since succumbed to the water.

Mr. Cronin collected memories and photographs of vanishing island life and compared them to modern maps and aerial photographs he took during the decades he spent surveying the Bay.

The result is a coffee-table book showing the slow but increasingly faster demise of Chesapeake Bay islands. Mr. Cronin thinks that one day they all will be gone.

“Five hundred islands have completely disappeared,” Mr. Cronin says. “They’re on land records, but they’re not on the modern charts.”

He points to precarious Bay outposts such as Smith Island, accessible only by boat and cherished as an old-time fishing community.

Like residents of other islands centuries ago, Mr. Cronin says, the inhabitants of Smith Island eventually will have to relocate to the mainland.

“In 20 years, I think most people will have left Smith Island,” he says. “Smith and Tangier [Island] were completely overrun in the last hurricane. Every storm washes a little more of them away. It will be mostly uninhabitable out there before too long.”

Mr. Cronin’s outlook may seem grim, but it is difficult to ignore the pictures of now-underwater islands and buildings.

Consider Poplar Island, once home to a small community and later a private club that hosted two presidents. By the end of the 20th century, just five small parcels of the island remained above water.

Or take a look at pictures of Little Watts Island south of Crisfield: A 1944 photo shows a lighthouse on the island nearly engulfed by waves. The lighthouse collapsed a few weeks after the photo was taken.

“The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake” was published in June by the John Hopkins University Press and costs $35.

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