TORONTO -- The enormous potential cost of protecting and restoring a U.S. coastal town due to rising sea levels could serve as an example of the consequences of climate change, according to a new study.

In the study, published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Climate, researchers analyzed data from Tangier, Va., on Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay. They found the small fishing town had lost 62 per cent of its habitable upland area, from 32.8 hectares down to 12.5, between 1967 and 2019, primarily due to a rise in sea levels.

Tangier's population has also shrunk, from more than 1,100 people in the early 1900s to just 436 recorded last year.

"Our study shows that sea-level rise has already had a severe impact on a small town in the U.S.," David Schulte of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who co-authored the study, said in a news release. "Soon, these Americans, inhabitants of the last isolated fishing community in Virginia, will become climate change refugees, forced to relocate."

The loss of habitable land across Tangier appears to be accelerating over time, and it is predicted by 2051 the entire area will be converted to wetlands.

"We noted that local sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay region is higher than the global average, and that it is accelerating in a similar trend as the global mean rate," Schulte said. "The rate of conversion of high ground to wetlands was generally an accelerating trend, just like the sea-level rise that is driving it."

Part of the study also estimated the cost of relocating the residents of Tangier, as well as the cost to protect and restore the town.

Researchers calculated that it would cost US$250-350 million to fully protect the town by taking measures such as applying protective stone along the vulnerable shorelines of the island and raising its three ridges by three metres using dredged sand.

Once an exodus were to become inevitable, the researchers say, relocating the town's 436 inhabitants would cost US$100-200 million.

A continued rise in sea levels is one of the most serious consequences of the climate crisis, according to the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Rising sea levels can result in not only a loss of habitat for humans, but animals as well, forcing displacement to higher ground. Higher seas can also lead to more severe hurricanes and typhoons.

Tangier Island could serve as a wake-up call to places with large coastal cities.

"Our study shows that sea-level rise impacts in the U.S. are already severe in some areas, even forcing people to relocate," Schulte said. "Our data and analysis suggest Tangier Island is almost out of time, just like many other coastal communities all over the world."