How will climate change impact coastal communities? VCU researchers look to Virginia’s barrier islands for clues

Photo of a dried maritime forest.

On Parramore Island, what was once a maritime forest is now essentially dead — a change brought about, at least in part, by climate change.

Off the seaside of Virginia’s Eastern Shore is a chain of uninhabited barrier islands that help protect the mainland coast from storms that — thanks to climate change — are increasing in both frequency and intensity.

However, these 23 islands stretching from Assateague Island at the Maryland border to Fisherman Island near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel are themselves under threat from climate change and sea level rise.

As the average temperature ticks up slightly, a species of shrub — Morella cerifera (wax myrtle) — has proliferated to a staggering degree across many of the islands. In the past, the shrub would die in extreme winters. Now it grows year-round, pushing out grasses that build sand dunes essential to protecting the islands.

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