National Geographic : 2016 Dec
108 naTional geograPhic • december 2016 ssaTeague island National Seashore, which sits on a 37-mile-long sliver of land just off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, is gradually shuffling west. Over centuries, as hurricanes and nor’easters drive sand from its Atlantic beaches across the island and into its bayside marshes, the entire island is scooting closer to the coast. “It’s neat, isn’t it?” says Ishmael Ennis, hunching against a stiff spring wind. “Evolution!” He grins at the beach before him. It’s littered with tree stumps, gnarled branches, and chunks of peat the size of seat cushions—the remains of a marsh that once formed the western shore of the island. Later buried by storm-shifted sand, it’s now resurfacing to the east, as the island shuffles on. Ennis, who recently retired after 34 years as maintenance chief at Assateague, has seen his share of storms here. This national seashore, in fact, owes its existence to a nor’easter: In March 1962, when the leg- endary Ash Wednesday storm plowed into Assateague, it obliterated the nascent resort of Ocean Beach, destroying its road, its first 30 buildings, and its developers’ dreams. (Street signs erected for nonexistent streets were left standing in a foot of seawater.) Taking advantage of that set- back, conservationists persuaded Congress in 1965 to protect most of the island as part of the National Park System. Today it’s the longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island on the mid-Atlantic coast, beloved for its shaggy feral ponies, its unobstructed stargazing, and its quiet ocean vistas—which have always been punctuated, as they are on other barrier islands, by impressive storms. Scientists expect that as the climate changes, the storms will likely strengthen, sea levels will keep rising, and Assateague’s slow west- ward migration may accelerate. Ennis knows the island well enough to suspect that these changes are under way. Assateague’s maintenance crew is already confronting the consequences. On the south end of the island, storms destroyed the parking lots six times in 10 years. The visitors center was damaged three times. Repair was expensive, and after fist-size chunks of asphalt from old parking lots began to litter the beach, it began to seem worse than futile to Ennis. A tinkerer by nature—he grew up on a small farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore—he realized the situation called for mechanical cre- ativity. Working with the park’s architect, Ennis and his co-workers adapted the toilets, showers, and beach shelters so that they could be moved quickly, ahead of an approaching storm. They experimented with different parking lot surfaces, finally arriving at a porous sur- face of loose clamshells—the kind often used on local driveways— that could be repaired easily and, when necessary, bulldozed to a new location. “It was a lot of what we called ‘Eastern Shore engi- neering,’ ” Ennis says, laughing. “ We weren’t thinking about climate change. We did it because we had to.” He lowers his voice, mock- conspiratorially. “It was all by accident.” By Michelle Nijhuis Photographs by Keith Ladzinski the power of parks a yearlong exploration This is the last article in a yearlong series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. For more stories, photos, and videos on the power of parks and the threats to them, go to nationalgeographic.com/ power-of-parks.