Situated 50 miles east of Manhattan, Fire Island is one of the oldest queer communities in the United States, a refuge from societal judgment since the 1920s. But while other LGBTQ neighborhoods across the country contend with issues like gentrification, Fire Island faces a much graver threat–total destruction from climate change.
The island’s remote location off the Atlantic coast made it the ideal place to visit for those seeking privacy and a sense of freedom, but it could also be the reason the island won’t survive through end of the century.
A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the surrounding coastline will likely see sea levels rise between 2 and 7 feet by 2100, and possibly even higher. According to Sierra Magazine, the outlook beyond then is even bleaker if the Antarctic ice sheets collapse due to global warming.
The Army Corps of Engineers is currently engaged in a $1.7 billion project to address the urgent issues threatening the island’s beaches, dunes and homes. But Sierra writer Jimmy Tobias notes that, “in the long run they may only delay the inevitable—the eventual loss of Fire Island as a place fit for human habitation.”
The island’s rare grove of holly trees, the sunken forest, is already disappearing fast. “It is all eroding, it is eroding at a super rapid rate, at a scary rate, at a rate that is actually depressing. We have lost 30 to 40 percent [of the sunken forest] over the last 50 years,” said National Park Service wildlife biologist Jordan Raphael.
Raphael predicts increasingly stronger storms and rising sea levels will transform the island into a group of smaller, more vulnerable ones.
“People are going to hang on as long as they can, and I can’t blame them for that. Fire Island is a magnificent place, but I think at some point it is going to be a pearl of islands,” he said. “Maybe not within our lifetime, but the generation after that is going to have to figure out what to do.”
Michael Bilecki, another Park Service employee, agreed. “The long-term scenario for Fire Island is that in a hundred years or so a lot of it could be under water,” he said.
The LGBTQ hamlets of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines have both launched their own initiatives to stave off the effects of climate change. “We want to preserve the Pines and the Grove beyond 2050,” said Ken Wong, who heads the Grove’s committee.