As field trips go, it would be hard to imagine one more out there than the visit Northampton High School’s 10th graders took this spring to Parramore Island.
Instead of a typical school tour of the Air and Space Museum or the National Archives in Washington, DC, the students sloshed around the mudflats of a coastal barrier island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore that, on a typical day, has more coyotes than people. They tasted saltwort, touched fiddler crabs, and identified the clacking of a clapper rail on ground that has been shifting for 10,000 years.
The Nature Conservancy, which owns Parramore and 14 of the 18 islands in this coastal chain, brought the students to this buggy, diverse ecosystem to demonstrate the effects of climate change on land without people, and how people’s actions can shrink vital habitat and force change, even in remote places.
None of Andrea McCready’s biology students had any complaints about the unconventional destination as they bounded onto boats at Wachapreague and motored two miles across the inlet separating the Shore mainland from Parramore. Though they live close by, most had never been there. They couldn’t contain their excitement.
“I’ve heard more words today than I have heard from some of these kids since September,” McCready said. “It’s a teacher’s dream to be able to take what we’re learning in class and show it to them in the real world. There is nothing I can do in the classroom that compares to this.”
This spring, weather permitting, every 10th grade class in Northampton and Accomack public schools will have a chance to tour Parramore Island, and every fifth and seventh grader will take a trip to the Conservancy’s Brownsville preserve on the mainland, in Nassawadox, for land-based nature excursions.
The Conservancy is paying for the buses, the boats, the educational staff, and — if the school can’t afford it — even a substitute back in the classroom for the teacher who attends the field trip. The funding is helpful in this cash-strapped Shore district, which didn’t have money for field trips this year.
The Conservancy is hoping that these visits will help students understand the accelerating changes around them, such as occasional nuisance flooding that’s become more frequent and the loss of island communities, like Saxis and Tangier Island to the north in the Chesapeake Bay.
Parramore is 7 miles long and about 2 miles wide. It is a designated state natural area preserve and part of a series of islands that make up the Virginia Coast Reserve, many of which can be accessed by people using their own boats. Many families in Northampton and Accomack, the Virginia Shore’s only counties, lack the income to have their own vessel. And a few of McCready’s students had never even been on a boat, despite living so close to water.
“We have all this long-term data that can tell us how ecosystems are responding to climate change,” said Coast Reserve Director Jill Bieri. “The people in this community, they see things changing. Some are dramatic changes, some are incremental changes.”
New research from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science revealed that barrier islands are eroding or migrating landward at a rate of 3 to 18 feet per year. That movement has consumed at least 60 acres of salt marsh in the Coastal Bays every year and has resulted in the overall loss of 8,000 acres since 1870. Already, one bird species, the saltmarsh-dependent black rail, is being considered for listing as endangered because of habitat loss caused by climate change.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates sea level rise on the Virginia coast will be 3–7 feet by century’s end. Barrier islands can help blunt the storm surges and winds, but they cannot reduce the greenhouse gas emissions warming the planet and contributing to the melting ice that is forcing the oceans and seas to expand. And they are losing their ability to protect the mainland from storms as the weather patterns become more intense.
“Almost every group brings up sea level rise and climate change. They know it’s happening,” said Nature Conservancy educator Jennifer Davis. “They don’t necessarily know how these islands are connected to it, though.”
Historically, the islands were a community treasure for those with access; some had hunt clubs and welcomed campers and beachgoers. But developers saw the potential for resort communities, believing that the islands’ dynamism could be mitigated with a fence or a house built on stilts, but most of those succumbed to the rising ocean. The Nature Conservancy began acquiring some of the islands in 1969 to protect them from any further development. Of the four islands not owned by the Conservancy, the federal government and the state each own two.
On the Northampton students’ visit to Parramore, Davis unfolded a map and instructed them to traipse the island’s mile-long width from marsh to ocean. Each group carried a Secchi disk to check water clarity, a turbidity tube to check particle levels, a clipboard and paper to document all of the wildlife they saw.
They seemed in awe tromping through salty mud and brackish water in Conservancy-issued waders and life jackets. Mosquitoes buzzed as they entered a forest — the largest on any of the state’s barrier islands — and crested a hill of pine needles flanked by smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and phragmites, an invasive reed-like grass. Along the beach, they saw the stump remains of a forest that stood there before the island moved.
Many made the connection between the ground they were treading and decisions being made in the nation’s capital nearly 225 miles away. Shacory Jones, 17, said he was worried that inaction on climate change would imperil all of the creatures he was documenting.
“They’re going to take away animals’ homes,” he said. His friend, 15-year-old Kasai Clark, added, “They won’t have nowhere to go.”
Their classmate, Tajiana Trower, also 15, said Tangier Island in the Bay could wash away because of global warming. Her friend, Nateisha White, added: “Because of the factories. They have all that smoke.”
Bieri and her staff acknowledge the logistic difficulties in bringing the students to the island; inclement weather has forced them to reschedule a couple of trips, and they’ve had to recruit volunteers to make the island visits affordable — Bieri’s husband, for example, captained one of the boats. But they say the effort is worth it to share the islands, once a protected secret and now a living laboratory with an important story to tell.
“It’s a unique experience for anybody,” Bieri said of the islands. “But for a 10th grader? It’s pretty amazing.”