A Canadian Island Is Being Swallowed Up by the Sea and Climate Change Is the Reason
The 400-plus Indigenous people who live on an island off PEI could soon have to relocate.
Photo by CP/Andrew Vaughan
When the remainder of Hurricane Matthew passed over Canada's east coast last weekend, leading to extreme flooding and damage that will take weeks to clean up, residents of little Lennox Island were spared.
"We were lucky," Dave Haley, the island's property manager, says. "The water was high, but we didn't have a storm surge."
The storm may have barely grazed Lennox, which sits just above sea level off the coast of Prince Edward Island, but its position is no less precarious: scientists say the 450 Indigenous Mi'kmaq people who call it home will be among Canada's first climate refugees. Like the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe in southeastern Louisiana, rising sea level is gnawing away at Lennox's shores. In the American case, the once 11-mile long island has lost about 98 percent of its land area. In the Canadian example, land surveys show Lennox Island has lost almost 300 acres of land since 1880, when it was about 1500 acres. Between 1968 and 2010 alone, it lost 77 acres of land.
University of PEI Climate Lab director Adam Fenech says Lennox Island will be "certainly one of the first" communities of climate refugees or migrants in Canada.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change, there will be one meter of sea level rise around the world by 2100, with some projections putting that number higher. And with an increase in storms that are more intense and dangerous, storm surges will add to the rising waters and further erode the coast.
"Moving or protecting are two of the options they have for adaptation," says Don Jardine, a University of PEI Climate Lab researcher who has been mapping how sea level rise and erosion are affecting Lennox Island.
"They've tried to protect themselves from coastal erosion by putting up hard rock along certain areas of their coast, but as time marches on, that will be a temporary measure."
But as coastal protection comes at a high cost, moving will become necessary in the long term.
And plans are already in motion to relocate residents, with the island's government purchasing two plots of additional land in the last 15 years on PEI, where it hopes to build dozens of new homes.
Haley's house is a mere 15 to 20 feet from the water, and only five feet above sea level. Because of the threat to his home, he plans to move within the next decade.
"It's a shame, but that's nature," he says. "We can fight against it but it's no use. Water is water and it's going to be what it's going to be."
In December 2010, a huge storm hit the island and the storm surge washed out part of the only road and bridge that connects it to the mainland, and nearly breached the lagoon that residents rely on to filter their sewage and provide clean water.
Lennox Island does have an emergency preparedness plan for its residents to follow in the event of flooding. But another storm surge like the one in 2010 and the salt water could contaminate the island's well water, and the sewage overflow could pollute the seafood that sustains the island's fishing economy.
"I'm always concerned about my lagoon," chief Matilda Ramjattan told VICE News. Her Mi'kmaq ancestors settled in the Maritimes 10,000 years ago. "That's my wastewater. If that was breached, we're all in deep doo doo, literally."
She has no specific plan to protect the bridge or the lagoon yet, but engineers tell the chief the best possible protection against erosion would be to stack boulders along the island's sandy shores, which some residents have already done. In the long term, though, the chief says people will begin to move off Lennox Island to a small parcel of reserve land on PEI.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has agreed to fund coastal erosion surveys, and the chief is in discussions with PEI to secure additional funding—but neither government has pledged funding for bouldering the shoreline or moving the residents off island.
"We have a plan but it's going to cost a lot of money to do it the way we want to do it," she says. "At this point I'm willing to do anything to ensure we have shoreline protection."
Since the 2010 storm washed out the road and disconnected the island from emergency services, people park their boats closer to their houses, Haley says, "just in case."
As part of a Canadian-Caribbean partnership, researchers are studying Lennox Island alongside Jamaica and Tobago to find out how to best adapt to sea level rise.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter.