In the past year, the Inuit community of Tuktoyaktuk in the Canadian Arctic, perched on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, has had to move five houses and a warehouse away from the shoreline because they were threatened by erosion, according to Mayor Darrel Nasogaluak.
"One was an emergency," Chukita Gruben, the community's 22-year-old former climate change coordinator, told me over the phone. "The other ones were about to fall."
Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories—its population is around 900 people—is grappling with the effects of climate change. Permafrost melt is liquefying the ground under its buildings and roads. Sea levels are rising. The ice is melting earlier, and freezing later, meaning more open water and more storms. All this is contributing to the erosion that's eating away at the coast.
"Climate change is something the community's living with daily," Nasogaluak told me, and Tuk, as locals call it, is moving to adapt as quickly as it can.
Canadians, at least in the south, can sometimes feel smug about climate change. We read about places like the Maldives or even Miami being flooded by the rising seas, and it's scary—but for many of us, this feels far off from our own reality. Yet Canada is being reshaped by the same forces. In the next century, our coastline will look much different than it does today. The western Arctic, southeastern Atlantic Canada, and Vancouver are on the front lines.
Guoqi Han is a senior research scientist in physical oceanography with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He studies sea level rise and how it will impact Canada. I phoned him recently in Newfoundland, where he's based.
Sea levels are rising for two reasons, he explained: melting land ice, and the expansion of seawater as it warms up. But what many people don't realize, Han continued, is that water levels aren't rising in a uniform way—they impact different communities differently. "What really matters for local communities is the relative sea level," he said.
Here's how the picture looks. By the year 2100, according to Han, Charlottetown and Halifax could see 50-70 cm sea level rise, on average. Vancouver can expect to see 40 cm, and Tuktoyaktuk will see a 50 cm sea level rise. "That's not the possible upper limit," he emphasized. The reality could be worse.
Meanwhile, in some places, like the eastern Arctic, which is close to the Greenland ice sheet, the sea level could actually drop a bit in years to come, according to Han.
How to explain the variation in sea level rise around the country?
Han traces it back to 20,000 years ago, when parts of Canada were covered in a massive glacier. The ice eventually retreated, but—in an effect known as post-glacial rebound—the land is still very, very slowly bouncing back where all this weight was once pressing it down. Parts of central Canada, around Churchill, Manitoba and the Hudson Bay coast, are rising by 10 mm per year, Han said. Areas around the Atlantic coast, including Halifax and Charlottetown, are sinking—about 1 or 2 mm per year. That makes them even more vulnerable to rising seas, as well as the increased hurricanes and storms brought by climate change.
Vancouver is a little bit different. It's in an active earthquake zone. There, tectonic movement plays a bigger role, Han explained—Vancouver Island is actually slowly rising, but if a major earthquake does hit, the picture could change dramatically.
Canada has recognized that adapting against the pressures of climate change will be important in years to come. As part of its federal budget earlier this year, it earmarked $2 billion for a climate disaster mitigation fund. Still, there's been plenty of criticism that various levels of government aren't adequately prepared for the challenges ahead.
City planners in Atlantic Canada and on the West coast, as in Tuktoyaktuk, are working to buttress their cities against the effects of climate change. Vancouver is working under the assumption that it could see 50 cm of sea level rise by 2050, and 1 m by 2100, Angela Danyluk, a sustainability specialist with the city, told me. The city's adaptation strategy includes changes to building codes and a public education campaign, and officials haven't shied away from a discussion around whether infrastructure should even be removed from the coast.
It will change the way Vancouverites live day-to-day. "The lifestyle along the coast will change," Danyluk said. "It will be a new normal," one that includes annual preparations for winter storm surges and possible flooding, and maybe "reduced recreation opportunities" along the water, at least during some parts of the year. "The seawall will perhaps need to be shut down more often," she said. "Certain areas will have to be modified."
Tuktoyaktuk, of course, is already moving some of its buildings away from the coast. "We've lost a good month of the ice season," Nasogaluak told me. "Our oceans are freezing two weeks late, and breaking up two weeks earlier"—meaning there's an extra month of open water.
To protect its inhabitants, "we've put a line in the community where no one can build," he continued. "We can't protect them if they do build in that area." Nasogaluak said that imposing this restriction was very hard on people. But it just isn't safe anymore.
"We're a coastal community. We have coastal cabins and hunting areas," Nasogaluak continued. "People have had to relocate their camps where, for generations, they've hunted and fished." He said the community has applied for more government funding to help it withstand the pressures it's already facing—which are predicted to be more extreme in decades to come.
"We're a community of people who are very adaptive," he told me. "We're not panicking about climate change and sea level rise, but we need assistance. We're doing all we can."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.