When it comes to predicting the future of storms on the Chesapeake Bay, one of the great question marks is climate change. In the pages of this book, there has been no shortage of gales, blizzards and hurricanes. Often, these storms have caused loss of life, untold human tragedy and suffering, and phenomenal property damage.
How could it possibly get worse? Climate change. The subtle, quite changes wrought by shifting weather patterns and ever-higher tides bring their own quiet fury. If sea levels rise as predicted and ocean waters grow warmer, the reach and intensity of future storms could have a devastating impact on the Chesapeake region.
To understand this potentially stormy future, it helps to know something about the Chesapeake region’s geological past. At 200 miles long, Chesapeake Bay forms the largest estuary in the United States. At its narrowest point near Kent County, the bay is a mere 2.8 miles wide, yet its waters span 30 miles at the mouth of the Potomac. The bay drains more than 64,000 square miles from at least 150 rivers and streams that flow into it. The bay has 11,684 miles of shoreline. Those mere numbers don’t do its scope and scale true justice. Perhaps Captain John Smith came closest when he said of the Chesapeake, “This is a noble sea. Calm and hospitable, majestic in size. Its potential cannot be imagined.”
At the heart of the Chesapeake is a drowned river valley, flooded 10,000 years ago by the melting of the last great Ice Age. Though the massive sheets of ice never reached as far as Maryland, the melting of the glaciers to the north helped to create what we now know as the Susquehanna River.
To put things in perspective, it’s helpful to keep in mind that European settlement of the Chesapeake began 400 years ago—just a blip in the Chesapeake’s long history. And if one goes back even further, scientists say the Chesapeake really got its start 35,000 years ago when an asteroid struck the earth just about where Cape Charles is located today, creating an impact crater the size of Rhode Island and rolling out a tsunami that swamped the distant Blue Ridge mountains. In that one instant, the geologic fate of what would become the Chesapeake Bay was decided.
Asteroids, Ice Ages, and storms themselves are all far beyond human control and a reminder—however remote a possibility it may seem as one strolls along the beach on a fine day—that our human existence here may be more tenuous than ever we thought. It may be the ultimate act of hubris to believe that humans even matter in terms of environmental change or their lasting impact on the planet.