Climate change is a “slow-motion disaster” for places like PEI, experts say

The tides are rising, the sands are shifting and the coasts are crumbling. As studies warn of rising seas and accelerated erosion resulting from climate change, coastal communities in Canada are wondering what the future holds.

“Living on the coast is part of our economic, social and cultural fabric. It’s people’s livelihoods. It’s hard to get off those coasts,” said Chris Houser, environmental science professor at the University of Windsor and part of the school’s coastal research group. “It will be a very challenging time as we will 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 face the risk of slipping under rising tides as water levels rise. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released last year said the rate of global sea level rise is accelerating and that seas have risen by about 20 centimeters since the start of the 20th century.

John Clague, a professor of earth sciences at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, said even a few millimeters make a difference, especially when the effects are exacerbated by severe storms like Fiona that hit Atlantic Canada in September.

“It’s a slow-motion disaster,” he said. You’ve noticed that Fiona has done a lot of erosion. “And that’s permanent. Once it’s done, it’s done.”

“Threat to Their Door”

Across the country, municipalities like Richmond, BC, with populations of more than a quarter million people, live with a “threat on their doorstep,” he said. The area is home to the Deltaport, one of Canada’s top export facilities, as well as Vancouver International Airport and other critical infrastructure worth thousands of dollars that cannot be easily abandoned or relocated, she said.

The most immediate fix implemented is for newer buildings along the coast to be raised by a meter to account for projected sea-level rise, he said, but that’s a temporary fix.

Fiona ate off about 10 feet of shoreline near the Rustico Resort in New Glasgow, PEI (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

“We’re just solving the problem along the way,” Clague said.

Houser said scientists don’t have a “good calculation” of how much land has been lost to sea level rise because a combination of factors are involved. As rising waters reclaim the 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 it really has to do with sediment imbalance,” he said.

Desert of the affected areas

When seas break, ecosystems adapt by moving landward. As long as there’s room to move, that’s fine, Houser said, but human communities aren’t that mobile. People could start leaving coastal communities affected by changing conditions, she said.

A study published in March 2020 by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center said that nearly half of the world’s sandy beaches are at risk of extinction by the end of the century due to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia is the biggest loser, closely followed by Canada, the document 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 kilometres.

Adam Fenech, director of Prince Edward University’s climate laboratory, said the province’s 1,260 kilometers of coastline was at significant risk of erosion. Studies have shown that the island saw erosion at an overall average rate of 0.28 meters per year between 1968 and 2010.

Fenech used that data to show changes to the province’s coastline over the next 80 years. His calculations show that more than 1,000 homes, 146 commercial buildings, more than 40 garages, eight barns, seven gazebos, 17 lighthouses and 45 kilometers of roads are at risk of disappearing due to coastal erosion by the end of the century.

The island is “just made up” of sand and sandstone, and it’s not a “very resilient” place to begin with, Fenech said. Adding climate change is making things worse.

“Sea levels are rising, water temperatures are getting higher shedding sea ice, which serves as a good buffer against storm activity. We’ve had stronger storms, so it all works against PEI in terms of the future like an island now,” he said.

Extensive damage is shown at Covehead Pier the day following Post-Tropical Storm Fiona. (Brian McInnis/The Canadian Press)

“The island isn’t going anywhere fast. It would still take 10,000 years for the island to disappear. But there are some places where we’ve lost the coastline by one to five meters a year.”

Result of the melting of the glaciers

Professor Kate Sherren of Dalhousie University’s School of Environmental Studies said Canada’s borders were higher and drier before the glaciers retreated.

Geological forces are still rebalancing from that weight and coastal edges are slowly slipping into the water, he said.

Imagine a heavy person sitting in the middle of a waterbed with two smaller people at each end, Sherren said. “When that big person goes up, people will eventually really come down.”

And that’s what’s happening in central Canada in this postglacial period, he said.

Fenech called PEI the proverbial canary in the coal mine in terms of being at the forefront of climate change impacts. But it also gives scientists and governments a leap in understanding where and how best to adapt and live with climate change, he said.

It’s time to rethink how to rebuild

Houser said coastal communities affected by major storms will need to rethink how they rebuild and whether any areas have become off-limits.

“Are we going to force a different type of construction and armoring of the coast? Or are we going to allow that area to be reclaimed by water?”

When Hurricane Ivan hit the Florida coast in 2004, it was considered a once-in-100-year storm, he said.

“What happened is right after the hurricane – after every house was demolished, after the streets were completely destroyed – house prices actually went up. The amount of buildings went up, because people believed they were safe for another 99 years,” he said.

Before and after photos taken on Sept. 25 show the extent of erosion caused by Fiona. The lighter sections around the coasts of PEI indicate where the sand and soil of the mainland are now in the shallow oceanic waters adjacent to the shore. (ESA/Copernicus Sentinel-2)

“There’s a problem with how people perceive and understand science, they understand probability. It’s even more difficult to translate when the frequency and magnitude of the storms are actually changing.”

Erosion events seen in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia this year after Fiona hit the area show they will dramatically change the landscape, Sherren said.

“It may not disappear in 20 years, but it will look very different. And that’s the length of a mortgage.”

People need to understand that coasts are dynamic, not static, he said.

“The floodplain belongs to the river and the beach belongs to the ocean,” Sherren said, recalling a quote he once heard. “They don’t belong to us. And they can take it back whenever they want.”

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