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Risky Business

  • High water on Smith Island.
    High water on Smith Island.
    David Casagrande
  • Sunset on Smith Island.
    Sunset on Smith Island.
    Kirstin Webb ’18
  • The watery world of Smith Island.
    The watery world of Smith Island.
    Kirstin Webb ’18
  • Many Smith Islanders say that flooding and erosion are the issues, not sea level rise or climate change.
    Many Smith Islanders say that flooding and erosion are the issues, not sea level rise or climate change.
    Kirstin Webb
  • With their shadows in the foreground, Kirstin Webb ’18 and Hayley Hartman ’18 take in the scenery on Smith Island.
    With their shadows in the foreground, Kirstin Webb ’18 and Hayley Hartman ’18 take in the scenery on Smith Island.
    Kirstin Webb ’18
  • A car plows through a nuisance tide on Smith Island.
    A car plows through a nuisance tide on Smith Island.
    David Casasgrande
August 25, 2017

Three WC students spent the summer asking residents on some of the most vulnerable lands of Maryland’s Eastern Shore whether they were concerned about rising waters in their communities. They learned that words matter, and for many, risk is in the eye of the beholder.

It may seem evident, standing on the spongy edges of the Chesapeake Bay, that sea level rise is happening. High tides routinely drown waterside parking lots and roads, and during full moons or spring tides the effect is even more exaggerated. Storm surge from hurricanes, or even just a nor’easter’s three days of rain, can transform waterfront neighborhoods into marshlands. Scientists have shown how subsidence—what amounts to a geological settling of tectonic plates beneath the mid-Atlantic after the last ice age—is literally causing parts of the Delmarva to sink.

But as three Washington College students learned this summer, how people perceive the risk associated with these realities is nuanced and complicated, deeply enfolded in their sense of place, their religious faith, their generational memories, and their way of life. And those complexities pose challenges for local, state, and federal planners who are trying to get ahead of the effects caused by a changing sea level in the Chesapeake.

“How risk is communicated to people isn’t always received by local residents in the ways those communicators want it to be,” says Kirstin Webb ’18, an anthropology major who took part in the summer research project led by Aaron Lampman, chair and associate professor of the Department of Anthropology, and his colleague from Lehigh University, David Casagrande. “Part of this research is understanding people’s language. If we can learn how people talk about risk, we can pull out certain themes that people are comfortable with and they accept, and maybe that can help translate into better strategies for communicating policy.”

Webb joined Hayley Hartman ’18, a double major in anthropology and environmental studies, and Seth Miller ’17, also a double major in anthropology and environmental studies, in traveling to various communities on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to conduct ethnographic interviews with local residents. They asked residents about their perception of the risk of sea level rise, how they are dealing with it now, and how they think they’ll deal with it in the future.

The information they gathered inaugurated a long-term project into risk perception in these low-lying communities. They’ll develop a white paper on their results for planning officials to use, and they will be presenting their results next April in Philadelphia at the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology. Webb is also presenting in November at the American Anthropology Association, and the group has been invited by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and the Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Partnership to share its results at the 2018 Local Solutions Conference. Their research was also featured on WYPR’s “Chesapeake, a Journalism Collaborative.”

“Our overall research question is, how do people think about the risk imposed by climate change, and how is that influencing decisions to relocate,” says Hartman. Casagrande, associate professor and chair of Lehigh’s Department of Sociology & Anthropology, had done similar research in the Midwest. He and Lampman, who met while studying for their PhDs, started talking about moving the research to the mid-Atlantic, where sea level has risen three times faster than the worldwide average during the past two decades, according to the Maryland Commission on Climate Change’s report “Updating Maryland’s Sea Level Rise Projections.”

“When you look at the maps, especially flood insurance maps, the red zones are located on the lower Eastern Shore, so we thought that would be a great place to start doing this research,” Lampman says. The group developed a set of research questions, and the students fanned out, Miller to Crisfield, Webb to Smith and Hoopers islands, and Hartman to Tilghman Island and later Ocean City. Right away, they knew they had a problem. Many people would not even talk about climate change or sea level rise, refusing to acknowledge them as fact and therefore not an issue.

“We started with an initial set of questions and found we were using the wrong language,” Hartman says, “so we had to rewrite and reorganize our questions.” They also had to change their choice of words, avoiding hot-button terms like sea level rise or climate change, and instead discuss what was happening using culturally acceptable words like flooding and erosion. Once past those barriers, they began to learn how people were thinking about what was happening and to discern common themes.

Students transcribed 25 interviews, then uploaded them into a text analysis data package that let them identify and code for certain terms or combinations of words, enabling them to come up with a qualitative analysis of terms. “It’s about patterns, so we’re looking at emergent themes that come out of all of these,” Webb says.

“One thing they are finding is that people on the Eastern Shore are deeply attached to this place,” Lampman says. “Economic attachment, multigenerational attachment—a sense of place is playing a big role.” For many who have lived in a place like Smith Island for generations, their faith in community and God will see them through, as it always has, Webb says.

“For some people, faith really plays into the feeling of safety and longevity for the island,” Webb says. “I think in Smith Island they’re more worried about economic viability in the future … that seems more prevalent on people’s minds. The flooding is just a nuisance, ‘It’s part of living here, we just deal with it.’ ’’ As an example of how they deal with it, she says, they will use a junker car—called a tide car or saltwater car—when the water’s high, rather than their better vehicle.

“The main theme that I heard as I talked with more and more people was that climate change and sea level rise were not the biggest fears or concerns that the townsfolk felt they were facing,” Miller says. “Most of them talked more about their problems with increased tax rates due to the increasing cost of flood insurance. Others also talked about how they do not feel climate change and sea level rise were big problems that needed to be addressed.”

Another common theme is “structural bias,” which roughly translates to a belief that technology will fix the problem. For instance, some residents believe seawalls and jetties can solve the issue.

Webb, who is the current president of the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows, received a Cater Society grant to help fund her research, and she plans to expand upon it for her Senior Capstone Experience this year, as does Hartman. Hartman and Miller both received Hodson Trust Internship grants to fund their roles in the project, and Miller also received funding from the Nina A. Houghton Internship Fund. Lampman was awarded a Faculty/Student Collaborative Research Grant from the Office of the Provost and Dean to support the work, and he and Casagrande plan to apply for external funds to support the project in the future.

Last modified on Nov. 27th, 2017 at 11:01am by Taylor Fields.