Climate Change: Rising Oceans, Storm Waves ‘Slow Motion Disaster’ for Coasts

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dated: 2022-11-20 12:11:25 .

The tide is rising, the sand is shifting, and the shores are crumbling. As studies warn of rising sea levels and accelerated erosion due to climate change, coastal communities in Canada are wondering what the future holds.

“Life on the coast is part of our economic, social and cultural fabric. It is the basis of human life. It’s hard to get away from these shorelines,” said Chris Houser, a professor of environmental science at the University of Windsor and part of the school’s coastal research group. “It’s going to be a very difficult time because some of these coastal areas have been eroded or further affected by sea level rise and storms.”

Communities on Canada’s east and west coasts are at risk of slipping under rising tides as water levels slowly rise. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published last year said that global sea level rise is accelerating and that seas have risen by about 20 centimeters since the beginning of the 20th century.

John Clague, a professor of geosciences at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, said even a few millimeters can make a difference, especially when the impact is compounded by powerful storms like Fiona, which hit Canada’s Atlantic Ocean in September.

“It’s a slow-motion disaster,” he said. He noticed that Fiona was producing a lot of erosion. “And it’s permanent. When it’s over, it’s over.”

Across the country, communities like Richmond, B.C., with a population of over a quarter of a million people, live with “the threat on their doorstep,” he said. The area is home to Deltaport, one of Canada’s most important export facilities, as well as the multi-trillion-dollar Vancouver International Airport and other critical infrastructure that cannot be easily abandoned or relocated, he said.

The most immediate solution to be implemented is to raise newer buildings along the coast by a meter to accommodate expected sea level rise, he said, but that is a temporary solution.

“We just blame the street for the problem,” Clague said.

Houser said scientists don’t have a “good estimate” of how much land has been lost to sea level rise because a combination of factors are at play. As the rising waters encroach on the land, there is also an added risk of flooding and erosion, he said.

“Much of the erosion in Canada has nothing to do with sea level rise. But it actually has to do with sediment imbalance,” he said.

As the seas approach, the ecosystem adapts by moving inland. As long as there’s room to move around, that’s fine, Houser said, but human communities aren’t that mobile. People may begin to leave coastal communities under the influence of changing conditions, he said.

A study published in March 2020 by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center says that almost half of the world’s sandy beaches are threatened with extinction by the end of the century due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia will lose the most, followed by Canada, the newspaper writes. Models show that Canada will lose between 4,000 and 9,000 miles of sandy beaches by 2100. Canada’s total coastline is about 150,000 miles.

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

Fenech used the data to map the province’s coastal changes 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 being lost to coastal erosion by the end of the century.

The island is “just” sand and sandstone and not a “very robust” place to begin with, Fenech said. Add to that climate change, which makes things worse.

“Sea levels are rising, water temperatures are rising to get rid of sea ice, which acts as a good shield against storm activity. We have stronger storms, so everything against PEI in terms of its future as an island now weighs heavily,” he said.

“The island is not going away anytime soon. It will be another 10,000 years before the island disappears. But there are places where we lose one to five meters of coastline a year.”

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

Geological forces are still balancing that weight and the shoreline is slowly sliding into the water, she said.

Imagine a heavy person sitting in the middle of a water bed with two smaller people at each end, Sherren said. “If that great person stands up, people will actually end up failing.”

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 spearheading the impacts of climate change. But it also gives scientists and governments a step forward in understanding where they are and what the best ways are to adapt to and live with climate change, he said.

Houser said coastal communities affected by major storms must reconsider how they rebuild and whether certain areas are closed.

“Are we going to force a different way of arranging and shielding the coast? Or are we going to… let the water take over this area?”

When Hurricane Ivan hit the Florida coast in 2004, it was thought to be a once-in-100-years event, he said.

“What happened was right after the hurricane — after every house was down, after the streets were completely destroyed — home prices actually went up,” he said.

“There is a problem in the way people perceive and understand science, understand probability. It’s even harder to translate when the frequency and strength of storms actually changes.”

Erosion events observed in Prince Edward Island and Northumberland, NS this year after Fiona hit the area show it will drastically change the landscape, Sherren said.

“It may not be gone in 20 years, but it will look very different. And that is the lifetime of the mortgage.”

People need to understand that coastlines are dynamic, not static, she said.

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

This Canadian Press report was first published on November 20, 2022.

Hina Alam, Canadian Press

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Climate Change: Rising Oceans, Storm Waves ‘Slow Motion Disaster’ for Coasts

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