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Will the traditions of tiny Tangier Island survive or sink?

Life on Tangier Island has always been defined by water. Now it is menacing its very existence. Battered by Chesapeake Bay's relentless waves, scientists say the land’s shrinking is accelerating, as man-made climate change makes the waves from rising seawater worse. John Yang talks with Earl Swift, author of "Chesapeake Requiem," and examines how life in the singular community is threatened.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally tonight: a look at a place right here in the United States where scientists say the effects of climate change are plain to see.

    John Yang travels to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, a tiny speck of land that is shrinking as the sea level rises.

  • John Yang:

    The sun is barely up, but the watermen of Tangier, Virginia, have already been out on the Chesapeake Bay for hours.

    One after another, boats shuttled back and forth into the island's tiny harbor carrying their delicious cargo, Chesapeake blue crabs, which thrive in these waters. The provided a livelihood for generations of residents on this bit of mud and marsh 12 miles from shore.

  • James “Ooker” Eskridge:

    I'm a commercial crabber. My son's a commercial crabber. My father was a crabber, grandfather, great-grandfather.

  • John Yang:

    James Eskridge is the mayor of Tangier, known to everyone by his childhood nickname, Ooker.

    Like the other 460 or so residents of the island, his life is defined by the water.

  • James “Ooker” Eskridge:

    We harvest crabs, fish, oysters, clams, and it's all about the seafood. It's what — it's how we put food on the table. It's how we put our kids through college.

  • John Yang:

    Now the water is menacing Tangier's very existence.

  • James “Ooker” Eskridge:

    It's ironic. The Chesapeake Bay over the years has provided a living for the folks here, and now it's the Chesapeake Bay that is threatening the island, threatening to take it away.

  • John Yang:

    While Tangier Island has been shrinking for centuries, battered by the bay's relentless waves, scientists say the problem is accelerating.

    Folks here say this kind of tidal flooding isn't unusual after a big nor'easter, like the one that just blew through, because it pushes all the water up from the east. But some fear this could be a glimpse into the future for Tangier Island.

    The Army Corps of Engineers estimates Tangier has lost nearly two-thirds of its land mass since 1850. That's about 1,400 acres. If nothing is done, scientists say, it may have to be abandoned in the not-too-distant future.

  • Earl Swift:

    It's dramatic in places.

  • John Yang:

    Earl Swift first came to Tangier in 2000. He returned in 2015, and spent 14 months researching his new book, "Chesapeake Requiem," a detailed portrait of this distinctive community.

    He said the changes in the intervening years were striking.

  • Earl Swift:

    There's just a lot less island. The western end of the boat channel is 75 feet wider than it was when I was here 18 years ago now.

    The uninhabited marsh island that forms the northern third of Tangier was a pretty solid expansive marsh. Today, it's a loose macrame of strands of marsh just pocked all throughout with water.

  • John Yang:

    The dire fate of the island runs through Swift's narrative. At its core, though, it's a look at its people.

  • Earl Swift:

    A community out at the edge of the American experience that really helped define the breadth of that experience, a place that — unique is a word that is overused today, but a place that is truly unique.

  • John Yang:

    It's a place so isolated that virtually all residents are descended from the first settlers who arrived in 1778. The crowded cemeteries are filled with Parks, Pruitts and Crocketts.

    Their Victorian version of the Methodist religion still permeates the community. Alcohol is not sold here, and signs of faith are everywhere, even the municipal water tower.

    And then there's the Tangier dialect. It echoes the speech of their ancestors who came from the Southwestern coast of England. The isolation has also fostered an unusually strong bond among its residents.

  • Earl Swift:

    I didn't understand how different the sense of community, the meaning of community is here. To reach the rest of America requires effort and time and, at certain times of the year, a certain amount of danger.

  • John Yang:

    Talk of the island's future is hard to avoid.

  • Earl Swift:

    It's a preoccupation that never leaves them. Their entire lives are tied up in it.

  • John Yang:

    Islanders want a seawall to surround Tangier. But with a $30 million price tag, the Army Corps of Engineers says it would be cheaper simply to move everyone to the mainland.

  • James “Ooker” Eskridge:

    A lot of folks, myself included, we really don't go there, like, thinking about having to abandon the island and move somewhere else.

  • John Yang:

    Much of the debate surrounding Tangier's future focuses on what's causing the island to shrink. Scientists say rising seawater caused by manmade climate change makes the effect of the waves even worse.

    Islanders like Ooker Eskridge see only the erosion.

  • James “Ooker” Eskridge:

    And we can see the effects of erosion daily, weekly for sure. But the sea level rise, things just look the same to me as they did when I was a boy.

    I have been working the bay for 50 years, and pretty much day in, day out. And I just don't see any difference in the sea level.

  • John Yang:

    The debate has drawn national attention, largely because 87 percent of the island's voters went for President Trump, a climate change skeptic.

    That prompted CNN to visit last summer.

  • James “Ooker” Eskridge:

    I love Trump as much as any family member I got.

  • John Yang:

    After the broadcast, the president called Eskridge and told him the island would be around for hundreds of years more.

  • Earl Swift:

    There's a great distrust of expertise, of scientific expertise.

  • John Yang:

    Often Earl Swift.

  • Earl Swift:

    At the heart of it is that you have two different kinds of data being collected. The outside experts tend to rely on empirical data. And Tangiermen rely on a much more anecdotal style of data collection, which is, they go out in their boats every day and they look at the water.

  • John Yang:

    The shrinking land is not the only threat to Tangier's future. There's also the shrinking population, as young people leave.

    Enrollment at the island's combined school, K-12, is 54, the lowest it's ever been. Three grades have a single student.

  • Nina Pruitt:

    And you could ask all — any of our high school students, and probably most of them would say, I don't mind living here if there was just a job opportunity.

  • John Yang:

    Tangier native Nina Pruitt has worked at a school for 36 years, the last 14 as principal.

  • Nina Pruitt:

    We have four senior girls now. Three of them want to be nurses. And they know there's only so many nurses that Tangier Island can support. And so they know that there — there is not a choice about coming back.

  • John Yang:

    For many of Tangier's young men, it's a choice between following their elders onto the water or moving away.

  • Cameron Evans:

    I love working on the water, but it's not guaranteed money. I mean, today, I could make a couple thousand dollars. Tomorrow, I could go backwards and lose a couple hundred dollars.

  • John Yang:

    We met 19-year-old Cameron Evans on his first visit back to Tangier after he left for Virginia Wesleyan University in Norfolk, Virginia.

  • Cameron Evans:

    It's a big change. I mean, I had only six people in my class, and now I got 400-some people in my class.

  • John Yang:

    Evans considers himself a Tangierman through and through. He crabs in the summers and hunts ducks in the winters. But his professional interest, photography and maybe journalism, would be hard to pursue here.

  • Cameron Evans:

    I guess it's a struggle to balance between carrying on the tradition of living on the island or doing a different career off the island. Nobody's really tried being a photographer here and working for a company outside the island.

    Hopefully, maybe I can be the first one and then carry on the tradition by living here and possibly raising a family here.

  • Nina Pruitt:

    It would be great if I could look into the future, and they will all come back, our population will build up again. But that's not realistic or fair.

  • John Yang:

    With dire predictions about climate change, some warn the desperate fate this tiny island faces could eventually face coastal cities like Miami and New York.

  • Earl Swift:

    Whether we decide to intervene, whether we decide to let it sink, that decision is going to inform what we do the next time and the time after that and the time after that.

    In some ways, it's a terrible candidate for that job. It's small. It's getting smaller all the time in terms of population. But we don't get to choose what the first is. That is kind of thrust upon us. And Tangier is it.

  • John Yang:

    As this singular community hopes to be saved, rather than surrendered to the sea.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Tangier, Virginia.

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