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Eastern Shore farms are getting salty: Here’s why everyone should care | COMMENTARY

University of Maryland Professor Kate Tully, left, talks with Professor Holly Michael of the University of Delaware about the potential to use the St. Jones Reserve south of Dover as a research site for a $4.3 million National Science Foundation grant to study the transforming effects of invading saltwater on the already watery coastal lands of the Delmarva Peninsula. (Hannah Fields/University of Maryland) - Original Credit: Hannah Fields/University of Md
University of Maryland Professor Kate Tully, left, talks with Professor Holly Michael of the University of Delaware about the potential to use the St. Jones Reserve south of Dover as a research site for a $4.3 million National Science Foundation grant to study the transforming effects of invading saltwater on the already watery coastal lands of the Delmarva Peninsula. (Hannah Fields/University of Maryland) - Original Credit: Hannah Fields/University of Md (Hannah Fields/University of Md / HANDOUT)

Several thousand years ago, it was a common practice for conquering armies in the Near East to spread salt across the land of their enemies to prevent them from returning and rebuilding — if only symbolically. There’s even a reference to it in the Old Testament’s Book of Judges when the Canaanite city of Shechem is sown with salt after a revolt is quelled. The implication is clear: when the soil becomes salty, nothing will grow. And since people depend on crops to eat, they are stuck — move on or die. For all the industrial revolution, the genius of technology, the centuries of accumulated knowledge since then, the conundrum hasn’t changed all that much. Salty land and crops don’t mix. Traditional farms face ruin.

But what has changed over the millennia are the circumstances. Coastal farmers are finding themselves increasingly at odds with rising tides and saltwater intrusion, a circumstance recently documented by Capital News Service reporters Bill Lambrecht and Gracie Todd. No longer is the culprit an invading Hittite army. Instead, it’s a vastly more formidable enemy — climate change. Rising seas mean brackish waters are more often flooding what had been rich cropland and leaving behind salt that inevitably stunts and ultimately prevents crops like corn and soybeans. Where corn might tolerate up to 0.9 parts per thousand of salt in the soil, there are farms on the lower Eastern Shore where the levels are as much as five times that high.

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“I don’t think even weeds will grow in some places,” one Maryland farmer lamented. That’s alarming. Not just because low-lying coastal areas are losing a vital livelihood or even that it has implications for the food supply but because saltwater intrusion is the canary in the coal mine. This is just one manifestation of how global warming is threatening human existence. But it’s an instructive one because, like many of the ill effects of rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, the change starts gradually, accelerates and ultimately proves irrevocable.

Maryland is in an especially vulnerable position. Rising temperatures and worsening weather have already increased the prospects for ruinous droughts and flooding. Some predictions are for a three-foot higher tide by the year 2100, a circumstance that would literally swamp much of the Eastern Shore and other coastal communities including the Inner Harbor. Farmers would hardly be the only people to bear the brunt of this. Most every community would be harmed to some degree and that doesn’t even include the broad implications as the world loses crops, nations face political upheaval and the threat of disease and armed conflict rises. And in case 2100 sounds comfortably far off, the forecast is for a foot higher tide by 2050 when a baby born today would be a mere 30 years old.

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Yet over and over again, climate deniers have found excuses for inaction — or to make matters worse which is what happens when you pursue an energy strategy that encourages fossil fuel production or authorizes coal-fired power plants or generally sneers at green energy and technology as socialism and government run amok. Rep. Andy Harris, the conservative Republican congressman who represents the Eastern Shore including those farmers facing ruin, is among the deniers having a lifetime environmental score from the League of Conservation Voters of just 3%. Drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge is just fine with Mr. Harris. Let Somerset County farmers grow oysters, presumably.

Until more people connect the dots and recognize the severity of this existential threat, crop losses may be remembered as among the least of our problems. Worsening health, rising food costs, heat waves and wildfires, scarcity of clean drinking water and so on will make the inconveniences of the COVID-19 pandemic look like child’s play. President-elect Joe Biden’s appointment of former Sen. John Kerry as a climate envoy may help the U.S. negotiate climate treaties, but there’s just so much any administration can do if people can’t be convinced of the science or the urgency of the problem. It’s telling that even on the Eastern Shore, many seem oblivious to what’s happening in their own backyard, perhaps until it’s too late. In Somerset County, voters chose Donald Trump, a denier, over Mr. Biden as president by a nearly 3-to-2 margin. Mr. Trump’s position on climate? Not only to burn more oil and coal and pull out of the Paris climate deal but to scrub the very mention of the issue from government websites. How can anyone offer help to people so willing to salt their own land?

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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