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New maps highlight vanishing E. Shore

Richard A. White wants to live the rest of his life in his waterfront home, which perches at the tip of a filament of land reaching out into Chesapeake Bay and boasts a 50-foot-long veranda with panoramic views of the sunset.

It sounds idyllic. But the 60-year-old historian has to drink bottled water because salt water has ruined his well. Whitecaps often froth across his lawn, which has shrunk by about 40 feet in the past 18 years.

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And during high tides in the fall, he pulls on tall boots, parks his car a block away on high ground and ties a rowboat beside his door, as his century-old house becomes a tiny island unto itself.

His property on Maryland's Eastern Shore is a vivid example of what is happening in low-lying areas all around the Chesapeake Bay, as rising sea levels coupled with slowly sinking land threaten to wash away homes, roads and farms some years down the road.

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Scientists have long known about this trend, which already devours at least 260 acres of coastal land in Maryland every year.

But the urgency of the problem has been highlighted recently by a new mapping technique that uses laser beams aimed from airplanes to measure the height of land masses.

The highly accurate topographical mapping, being pioneered by the state and federal governments, could revolutionize planning for storms, development and flood insurance on the Eastern Shore and elsewhere, officials say.

It's also worrying local officials who have seen the first of these maps and who fear that dire predictions of future land loss will discourage development and home buying.

A psychological thing

"Most of the county councils on the Eastern Shore don't like to hear about sea-level change. It's a psychological thing, and they're worried about it impacting property values," said J. Court Stevenson, professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

"It's a conundrum. There is a tremendous real-estate boom in Dorchester County right now, but there are also a tremendous number of acres that are going to be under water.

"A lot of wealthy landowners have land that will be submerged, and they would like to sell it before then," he said.

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Dorchester, where White lives, has received some of the first such maps from the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Geological Survey.

The maps show much of the county's southern quarter being consumed by water over the next century. Projections based on both conservative and moderate global-warming estimates show vast sections of wetlands in the 26,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge being flooded.

Scientists developing the maps, sensitive to the potential impact of their predictions, are offering two scenarios for each area: a highly conservative forecast, based on the continuation of the historical rise in sea level of 1 foot over the past century, and a moderate "global-warming" scenario, projecting a 2.25-foot rise by the year 2100.

Not the movies

"We are desperately trying to avoid being associated with The Day After Tomorrow," said Curtis E. Larsen, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey office in Reston, Va., which is helping the project in Maryland. Larsen was referring to the movie in which tidal waves crush New York City.

"We want people to know this is real," Larsen said. "There is fully one-half of the population that doesn't believe this is happening at all, and so we have to show them a business-as-usual scenario as well as a global-warming scenario."

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On the narrow Middle Hooper Island peninsula, the conservative projection would show the main road being washed out, new inlets breaking through and houses, including White's, being flooded. If the waters were to rise by 3 feet, which some scientists predict, the whole island would disappear by 2100, with all but a few isolated peaks under water by 2050.

"It's pretty dramatic. A 2-foot sea rise would pretty much inundate all of south Dorchester County," said Robert Tenanty, county engineer. "It's something we are aware of - and we need to take steps now, because it's only getting wetter."

Although debate continues over the future rate of global warming, very few scientists dispute that it's happening and that sea levels will rise by at least a foot over the next century in the Chesapeake region - a rate significantly faster than elsewhere in the world.

An international committee of more than 1,000 scientists, called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, projected in 2001 that sea levels worldwide will rise by roughly 1.6 feet by 2100, with a range of possibility from 4 inches to almost 3 feet.

Each foot of rise can mean at least 10 feet of land disappearing along the shore - and sometimes many times this amount, depending on the land's slope, said Stevenson of the University of Maryland.

The problem is worse around the Chesapeake Bay because the land is also slowly sinking as a bulge left from the retreat of glaciers thousands of years ago subsides at a rate of up to 0.6 of a foot per century, said Michael Kearney, a geography professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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When this sinking of the land is combined with the rising of the water, it creates a one-two punch for the Chesapeake region that means worse future flooding here than in other places on the globe.

Oceans are swelling, in part, because carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" from vehicles and industry are making global temperatures rise, melting polar ice caps and glaciers, Kearney said.

The new laser maps provide validation of a phenomenon obvious to anyone familiar with the low-lying Eastern Shore: Thousands of acres of farms and shore land are slowly vanishing under the water.

13 islands lost

At least 13 islands, some heavily populated, have been abandoned over the past century, including Sharp's Island, whose existence is marked only by a cockeyed lighthouse peering above the waves.

In southern Dorchester County, the broken windows of abandoned farmhouses gaze from what is now wetlands, with marsh grass growing in their front yards. Miles of tomato farms have been poisoned by salt water and become wetlands or ponds.

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More than 750 homes in the county were damaged by Tropical Storm Isabel last September, which caused at least $25 million in damage. The rising waters threaten to make the damage from each future storm worse, said William Boicourt, professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

More precise maps

The new mapping, called Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR maps, is created by using an airplane flying over an area, shooting a laser beam at the ground and measuring the time it takes for the light to bounce back, Larsen said.

These data are plotted onto maps that much more accurately reflect the elevation of land than the ancient, and often imprecise, system of surveyors peering through telescopes at rods, he said.

"We will definitely see drastic ... substantial differences in terms of where the flood plain lines are," said R. Kerry Kehoe, coastal program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Aerial laser data have already been collected over the past two years on all of Maryland's Eastern Shore. The state plans to offer counties the data and give them the option of paying up to $500,000 to create the topographical maps, state officials said.

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3 feet higher

Bay communities such as Dorchester - which used a federal grant of more than $100,000 to pay for its maps - would seem to have a stake in knowing where the water might flood. For years desperate for growth, Cambridge and surrounding Dorchester County now have more than 6,000 homes on the drawing board.

After the state briefed the county on the new maps last fall, the Dorchester planning department introduced emergency legislation that would have required new or renovated homes to be built 3 feet higher above water level than they are today.

But the County Council voted the proposal down 3-2 on Dec. 2, after some complained that this precaution against flooding would add $10,000 to $30,000 to the price of some homes.

"There were some on the council who felt the measure would put too much financial burden on the homebuilders," said Councilman Thomas Flowers.

"I was totally in favor of it, because you cannot stop the natural forces causing sea-level rise, and I think we have to prepare for it."

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Although he voted against the measure, County Councilman William Nichols said the county clearly faces a problem with Middle Hooper Island - waves already wash across the road at high tide.

Richard White's home is one of dozens on that road. He's in a red zone on the new map, meaning that it's a foot or less above sea level- about a third the elevation White thought his home had. The most conservative projections show his home submerged by 2100. A 3-foot rise could mean it might be under water in perhaps 30 to 40 years.

White has heard the predictions, but he refuses to move. A former resident of the District of Columbia who has published three books on Latin American politics, he said he fled to the peaceful spot in 1986, after getting "burned out" reporting on death squads and civil wars in Central and South America.

He said he's attached to his porch, which has soothing views of the Chesapeake Bay that are like therapy for him.

The growing dampness only makes the place more romantic for the writer. White said he didn't mind this past winter, when the encroaching surf knocked out his hot water heater, forcing him to take showers before church by heating pots on his stove and pouring water over his head.

White figures he'll just rebuild his home, raising it perhaps 3 feet, so the waters can roll in around him.

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"So what? Let the waters rise a little bit - I can't stop that," laughed White, chomping a cigar as a keening wind blew the spray of whitecaps through his porch screen.

"It's the greenhouse effect, the greedy capitalists, and I'm not going to let them ruin my life. I'm not going be swept away. I'm just going to sit on my porch and watch the sunset."


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