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Correction to This Article
A graphic with a Feb. 13 article about higher tides threatening historic cemeteries included an incorrectly labeled legend. The two flood forecast zones were reversed; the darker shading should have been labeled ¿Rise of less than five feet,¿ and the lighter shading should have been labeled ¿Rise of five to 11.5 feet.¿

Rising Bay Puts Cemeteries at Risk

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

HOOPERSVILLE, Md. -- After Annie E. Wroten died in July 1903, she was laid in a red-brick vault in a little cemetery here among tomato farms and loblolly pines. Almost 104 years later, she's about to be buried at sea.

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Her grave, once safely inland, is now a few inches from the Chesapeake Bay, the result of erosion that has eaten away tracts of Hoopers Island. Red bricks are protruding from the face of the crumbling bank on Maryland's Eastern Shore, more than two hours from Washington.

"This is ready to topple over, take the grave with it. Same with this grave," said Donny Willey, a local preservationist, walking along a row of headstones at the cemetery's unsteady edge. "One, two, three, four, five of them, getting ready to fall over the bank."

Around the Chesapeake, death is still forever, but graveyards increasingly are not. Rising water levels -- an old problem, apparently accelerated by climate change -- are threatening to erode away a number of historic burial sites. Some are already gone, leaving bones and coffin handles as ghoulish flotsam.

Eventually, experts say, rising seas could worsen flooding in the D.C. area and redraw maps of the Eastern Shore. But first, to the outrage of historians and surviving relatives, the water is evicting the dead.

"There's quite a bit of history being lost, almost as we speak, because of the waves," said Court Stevenson, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who studies the bay's geography.

Worldwide, sea levels are expected to creep up from seven to 23 inches before 2100, according to a report issued Feb. 2 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The cause, scientists believe, is an excess of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. As oceans warm, they expand, and the volume of water is also fed by melting ice.

In the mid-Atlantic region, scientists say, an old problem gives the new one greater impact: The land is sinking. It's a geologic hangover from the last ice age, the earth's crust slowly unkinking itself after being bent out of shape by the weight of huge glaciers.

Because of that subsidence, scientists say, sea levels in the region may seem to rise four to six inches more than the global average over the next century.

Already, rising water has profoundly altered the Chesapeake. The bay has swallowed once-inhabited islands that were home to a distinct culture built on farming, fishing and evangelical fervor. Today, only Smith and Tangier islands have residents hanging on.

Graveyards have proved especially vulnerable to the rising waters. Many of them were built close to the shore because that's where early settlers lived. Other cemeteries started out farther inland, in churchyards or farm plots, but erosion has eaten away the land and brought the waterfront to them.

An informal survey around the Chesapeake by a Washington Post reporter found at least 12 places where burial sites had been lost or were close to washing away.


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