Look out from their deck and the Chesapeake Bay spreads out in
sun-glittered splendor, an azure expanse punctuated by sailboats and seabirds
and far in the distance the wooded shoreline of Maryland's Eastern
Look down from their deck, 100 feet nearly straight down, and try not
to lose your lunch.
The spectacular view is what attracted retirees Marcia Seifert and
Phyllis Bonfield from Philadelphia to the top of Calvert Cliffs in Southern
Maryland five years ago, but they didn't realize it would get quite this
dramatic. Their two-story home is now 12 measly feet from the edge of the
precipice, about 35 feet closer than it was two years ago.
The inexorable erosion of the cliff face has sloughed off massive slabs
of earth and trees, and because an endangered beetle happens to live in the
cliffs, the residents have not been allowed to stop it.
"It's scary," said Bonfield, looking down the dizzying sand and clay
"We don't know how long Mother Nature will allow us to be here,"
Erosion is like receding gums or the depreciation of cars. It is a slow
battle and one you most surely will lose. And along the circuitous 7,700 miles
of Chesapeake Bay shoreline, the wind and waves are winning in ever more
emphatic fashion. Geologists say sea levels in the bay are rising about one to
two feet per century -- a rate double the world average -- although they do not
agree how much is because of global warming and how much because the land is
Add to this storm water rushing down from an increasingly developed
coastline, and scientists find that land in many spots is falling into the sea
at a rapid clip. Every century, an area roughly the size of the District is
being lost around the Chesapeake Bay. Each year, about 260 acres of shoreline
disappear from Maryland alone. Populated islands that once speckled the bay have
been submerged and swept away.
"When you're raising the water level, you just have so much more
susceptibility to any kind of wave attack," said Court Stevenson, a professor at
the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point
Laboratory in Cambridge.
In such places as Calvert Cliffs, erosion happens in fits and starts.
After the bay licks away the toe of the cliff, a big storm or prolonged rains
can saturate the top until it cannot bear its own weight and crashes
This month marks the start of hurricane season; two years ago, the
surge of Hurricane Isabel tore 20 acres of land from the Chesapeake's western
shore. This time around, the cliff dwellers of Chesapeake Ranch Estates said
they worry about when their number might be up.
"Calvert County is already the smallest county in Maryland, and it's
getting smaller every day because it's falling into the bay," said John Eney,
president of Chesapeake Ranch Estates, which has 3,700 homes, including 100
perched on the lip of Calvert Cliffs.