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In Maryland, sea slowly claims a historic island

With water levels in the Chesapeake Bay rising an inch per decade, Smith Island has lost more than 3,200 of its 11,000 acres over the past 150 years.

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Sometime in the 1780S, John Tyler, a landowner on Smith Island in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, dug a narrow boundary ditch in the soft ground to mark his property. After more than 220 years, wind and water in the bay have conspired to eat away at the land. Today the "ditch" is a waterway nearly a quarter-mile wide and an example of how nature is slowly consuming the island.

"Over the years it got wider and wider, but we still call it Tyler's Ditch," says local historian Jennings Evans.

Smith Island is actually a collection of small islands that together make up the last inhabited island in the Chesapeake Bay not connected by a bridge to the mainland.

Scientists calculate the water level in the bay is rising by a little more than an inch per decade: The sea is slowly taking over these specks of land, home to the hardy descendants of 17th-century English settlers.

"I know [an inch per decade] doesn't sound like much, but the reason for concern, especially in Maryland, is because the land is very low," says Michael Kearney, a University of Maryland geology professor who has studied the impact of sea-level rise on Chesapeake Bay.

Higher water levels mean stronger waves, increased erosion, rapid loss of marsh, and bigger storm surges. This could have a devastating effect in southern Maryland counties, where the average tide level extends more than a half-mile inland from the bay. That means waves from a big storm could penetrate far inland, Dr. Kearney adds.

Waverly Evans, a lifelong Smith islander, doesn't need a scientific study to tell him what's happening. He has been a witness as the creeping Chesapeake waters swallow what were once island homes.

As he guides his boat through Tyler's Ditch, Mr. Evans raises a weathered hand and points across the water to a marsh-and-grass-covered island.

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