Photo: The Canadian Press
A lobster boat foundered on rocks near the wharf in Stanley Bridge, PEI on September 25, 2022 after Post-Tropical Storm Fiona.
Tides rise, sand shifts and coastlines crumble. As studies warn of rising seas and accelerated erosion due to climate change, coastal communities in Canada are wondering what the future holds.
“Coastal life is part of our economic, our social, our cultural fabric. It’s people’s livelihoods. It’s hard to move from those shores,” said Chris Houser, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Windsor and part of the school’s coastal research. group. “It’s going to be a really tough period as we see some of these coastal areas being eroded or further impacted by sea level rise and storms.”
Communities on Canada’s east and west coasts are at risk of slipping under the swelling tides as water levels rise an inch. A report released last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the rate of global sea level rise is accelerating and seas have risen about 20 centimeters since the early 20th century.
John Clague, an earth sciences professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, said even a few millimeters make a difference, especially when the effects are exacerbated by violent storms like Fiona that battered Atlantic Canada in September.
“It’s a slow-motion disaster,” he said. He noted that Fiona caused a lot of erosion. “And that’s permanent. Once it’s done, it’s done.”
On the other side of the country, communities like Richmond, BC, with a population of more than a quarter of a million people, live with a “threat at their doorstep,” he said. The area is home to the Deltaport, one of Canada’s major export facilities, as well as Vancouver International Airport and trillions of dollars worth of other critical infrastructure that cannot be easily abandoned or moved, he said.
The most immediate solution being implemented is for newer buildings along the coast to be raised a meter to account for projected sea level rise, he said, but that is a temporary solution.
“We’re just kicking the problem out on the road,” said Clague.
Houser said scientists don’t have a “good calculation” of how much land will be lost as sea levels rise because a combination of factors are involved. As rising waters claim land, he said there is also the added threat of flooding and erosion.
“A lot of erosion around Canada has nothing to do with sea level rise, but really has to do with sediment imbalance,” he said.
When the seas roll in, the ecosystem adapts by moving landward. As long as there’s room to move, that’s fine, Houser said, but human communities aren’t that mobile. People may begin to leave coastal communities affected by changing conditions, he said.
A study published in March 2020 by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center states that nearly half of the world’s sandy beaches will be nearly extinct by the end of the century due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia will lose the most, followed closely by Canada, the paper suggests. Models show that Canada will lose between 6,400 and 14,400 kilometers of sandy beach by 2100. Canada’s total coastline is approximately 243,000 kilometers.
Adam Fenech, director of the University of Prince Edward Island’s climate lab, said the province’s 1,260 kilometers of coastline is at significant risk of erosion. Studies have shown that the island eroded at an average rate of 0.28 meters per year between 1968 and 2010.
Fenech used that data to show shoreline changes for the county over the next 80 years. His calculations show that by the end of the century, more than 1,000 homes, 146 commercial buildings, more than 40 garages, eight barns, seven garden sheds, 17 lighthouses and 28 miles of road are at risk of being lost to coastal erosion.
The island is “just made” of sand and sandstone, and not a “very hardy” place to begin with, Fenech said. Adding climate change will only make it worse.
“Sea levels are rising, water temperatures are rising and sea ice is being removed, which is a nice buffer against storm activity. We’re getting stronger storms, so it’s all working against PEI in terms of its future as an island now,” he said.
“The island isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It would take another 10,000 years for the island to disappear. But in some places we’re losing shoreline at one to five meters a year.”
prof. Kate Sherren of Dalhousie University’s school of environmental studies said Canada’s rims were higher and drier before the glaciers retreated.
Geologic forces are still recovering from that weight, and the coastal margins are slowly sliding into the water, she said.
Picture a heavy person sitting in the middle of a waterbed with two smaller people at each end, Sherren said. “If that big person gets up, the people at the end will actually go down.”
And that’s what’s happening in central Canada in this post-glacial period, she said.
Fenech called PEI the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to being at the forefront of climate change impacts. But that also gives scientists and governments a head start on understanding where and what are the best practices for adapting to and living with climate change, he said.
Houser said coastal communities hit by major storms should rethink how they are rebuilding and whether certain areas have become off limits.
“Are we going to force a different type of building and armoring off the coast? Or are we going to… allow that area to be claimed by the water?”
When Hurricane Ivan hit the Florida coast in 2004, it was considered a one-in-100-year storm, he said.
“What happened was right after the hurricane — after every house was demolished, after the roads were completely destroyed — house prices actually went up. The number of buildings went up, because people thought they were safe for another 99 years,” he said .
“There’s a problem in how people perceive and understand science, understand probability. It’s even more difficult to translate when the frequency and magnitude of storms actually change.”
The erosion events seen this year in Prince Edward Island and Northumberland, NS, after Fiona reached the area show that they are going to dramatically change the landscape, Sherren said.
“Maybe it won’t disappear in 20 years, but it will look very different. And that is the term of a mortgage.”
People need to understand that coastlines are dynamic, not static, she said.
“The floodplain belongs to the river and the beach belongs to the ocean,” Sherren said, recalling a quote she once heard. ‘They’re not ours. And they can take it back whenever they want.’