(Zoeann Murphy/TWP)

(Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

(Zoeann Murphy/TWP)

On the edge of retreat

An island community moved to the mainland. Now the fast-rising sea is following — a warning for the rest of the East Coast.

A century ago, about 250 people lived on Hog Island, a seven-mile expanse off the Virginia coast. They raised livestock and gathered oysters. They lived in a town called Broadwater, worked at the lighthouse and Coast Guard station, and danced at night in a social hall called the Red Onion.

But that was back when there was still soil beneath their feet.

The oldest gauge in Virginia, at Hampton Roads, has measured nearly a foot and a half of change since 1927. It’s accelerating: Seas there rose by more than six millimeters annually over the past 30 years, compared with four millimeters per year during the three decades before.

Sea level rise trends (1993-2021)


Hampton Roads















Just 250 miles off Virginia, one of the world’s most dramatic sea-level-rise hot spots has emerged, revealed by satellite measurements that began three decades ago. Signaling a shift in the Gulf Stream, a massive current that carries heat northward, it’s the most visible sign of a rapidly changing ocean.

Oyster now sits near this emerging sea-level-rise hot spot — and so does part of the legacy of life on Hog Island.

When Bell’s daughter Lisha was a child in the 1960s, Oyster was a thriving community, in part because of the shellfish industry.

Jill Bieri directs the Virginia Coast Reserve Program for the Nature Conservancy, which owns much of the land around Oyster. The conservancy is helping the small community develop a resilience plan to respond to climate change, but no decisions have yet been made.

The Chesapeake oyster population collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s because of disease and overfishing, forever changing Oyster. It also destroyed a regional industry driven by Black workers. This contribution has often been forgotten, said Vincent Leggett, a historian who heads the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation.

“They need to endeavor to find a way to memorialize that history and legacy and deliberately combat erasure,” he said, as part of any community planning or relocation effort.

Oyster is now a quiet community of homes, a few businesses and a University of Virginia research center. It often floods during high tides, including multiple times so far in 2022. These events are becoming more frequent along the East Coast, according to scientists.

The little house that the Bells moved to Oyster has seen water on multiple occasions, according to former owner Steve McCready. The worst was during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. McCready’s mother had to be rescued from the house as floodwaters rose.

After that, many homes were lifted onto pilings. Donna Fauber lives just steps from the Bells’ old house and wonders how long her family will be able to stay in Oyster.

Oyster is located in a politically split region of Virginia whose congressional seat flipped Republican in the midterm election.

Some people in the region are skeptical of the rising seas — including Bell’s son Ed, a longtime oyster fisher and former restaurant owner.

A trip to Virginia’s barrier islands is a sobering experience in today’s world of rising seas. Barrier islands shift for many reasons, but sea level rise accelerates their changes.

Cobb Island once had a large hotel. It has lost 55 percent of its area in the past century and was recently cleaved in half by the ocean.

On Hog Island, few ruins — metal stairs from a lighthouse, the foundation of an old Coast Guard station — remain visible above sea level. Hog Island has lost 24 percent of its area since 1871.

Buddy Bell is now 86 and lives about 100 miles north of Oyster — a place that is also near this sea level hot spot.

The nearest long-term tide gauge — in Lewes, Del. — shows a sea rising only a little slower than at Hampton Roads.

Bell says he can see a marked change in the sea level in the past 12 years.


Monthly data for all contiguous U.S. tide gauges from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Level Trends page were analyzed over 1993-2021, with 1993 chosen to match the first full year of the satellite sea level record. Linear trends were calculated using an approach that takes into account autocorrelated errors, following the methodology that NOAA has outlined for analyzing sea level trends.

For each site, we required that at least 70 percent of years have complete data (i.e., 12 monthly values); this affected 19 sites out of 103 in the contiguous United States. All trends have an associated uncertainty; for Virginia, this ranges from +/- 1.15 millimeters per year at Kiptopeke, Va., to +/- 1.47 mm per year at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, where data are unavailable after 2017.

Different methods exist for calculating sea level trends. We also examined 1993-2021 trends calculated by the University of Hawaii Sea Level Center for a select group of U.S. tide gauges, and trends calculated over a slightly different period (1990-2020) by the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level. In most cases, the results are similar, especially for the U.S. East Coast.

There is no long-term tide gauge record at Oyster, Va., and it is not clear which existing Virginia gauge would most closely reflect the changes there. The nearest record, at Kiptopeke, shows seas rising by 4.7 millimeters per year, somewhat lower than other Virginia records. This could reflect lower rates of land sinking or some other factor related to the placement of the gauge, according to Molly Mitchell at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. (Subsidence rates are not expected to change greatly going forward, and this would not affect future trends related to climate change.)

Hampton Roads is about 30 miles from Oyster and is generally a benchmark for the region. The trend there is also the midpoint among the five Virginia sites in our analysis, with two sites showing lower rates and two showing higher ones.

Sinking land is a factor in many U.S. tide gauge readings, not just in Virginia. U.S. sea level rise rates are highest on the Gulf Coast, where land subsidence rates also tend to be the highest because of oil and gas and drinking water extraction, and other factors. However, satellite trends suggest that sea level rise offshore is also elevated along the Gulf Coast, just as it is along the southeastern U.S. coast.

Global gridded sea level data is from the NOAA Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry; the mapped data show trends from late 1992 through early 2022, as calculated by NOAA.

The 1959 aerial photo of Hog Island is from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center; Hog Island’s 2022 satellite imagery is from Planet Labs PBC; historical maps of Hog Island are from NOAA’s Historical Map & Chart Collection. Calculations of area changes to the Virginia barrier islands are from Robbins et al, Geomorphology, 2022.

About this story

John Muyskens contributed to this report.

Photos courtesy of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Barrier Islands Center Inc., Donna Fauber, Lisha Bell and the Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Design and development by Hailey Haymond and Jake Crump. Editing by Monica Ulmanu, Katie Zezima, Joe Moore, and Angela Hill. Copy editing by Mike Cirelli.