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Quebec’s Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are at the mercy of rising sea levels and increasing storm surges. The fragile dunes, lagoons, marshes, and sandstone cliffs are all at risk of being lost. Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post via Getty Images

CAN - Living in a Doomed Paradise Where the Sea Consumes Cottages, Cliffs, and the A&W Drive-Thru

Quebec’s Magdalen islanders face a stark choice: resist, adapt, or give in to the ravenous sea.

An optical illusion makes my first sighting of Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, through a blur of blades, ethereal. The sky is the same shade of silvery blue as the utterly calm sea, so that Île Brion, an uninhabited island first charted by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534, appears to float in the atmosphere like a Shangri-La levitated from the Earth’s surface. The impression fades as the twin-propeller plane banks toward a runway on the central landmass of the archipelago, which consists of a dozen islands in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Green meadows meticulously outlined in white sand conjure up an Ireland unmoored: emerald isles that somehow seem to have drifted to the other side of the Atlantic.

The plane touches down on the island of Havre-aux-Maisons, which is linked to Cap-aux-Meules, the island where the big car ferries dock, by the archipelago’s only highway. The following day, I drive my rental car to the island of Grande-Entrée, where the pavement of Route 199 runs out in the parking lot of a small harbor. A couple of dozen fishing boats bob behind concrete breakwaters. From the passenger seat, Catherine Leblanc-Jomphe, my guide for the day, tells me to pull over next to an abandoned lobster processing plant.

Today is a blue-sky idyll, with light winds from the southwest urging the warm saltwater breakers onto the shore. But the waters of the Gulf rarely remain calm for long. Almost three years ago, the Category 5 hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas with some of the strongest winds ever to make landfall in the Atlantic. By the time it tracked north to the Magdalens, Dorian was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, but winds gusting up to 120 kilometers per hour raised waves as high as five-story office buildings that tore apart summer cottages, collapsed coastal roads, and left sailboats heaped on the shoreface like plastic toys in a drained bathtub. Two weeks before my latest visit, the remains of another hurricane, Category 4 Ida, inundated the islands with 100 millimeters of rain, enough to cause sewers to overflow and temporarily turn the stretch of highway that runs through the community of Cap-aux-Meules, the commercial and administrative heart of the Magdalens, into a river.

Storms like these, the shock troops of the climate crisis, are bringing with them unprecedented rates of coastal erosion. A land of immense natural beauty without much land to lose, the Magdalens were included in Time magazine’s global ranking of “10 Amazing Places to Visit Before They Vanish.”

View of rugged cost line of Havre Aubert in magdalen island in Quebec, Canada
The population of Quebec’s Magdalen Islands swells in summer as tourists descend on the picturesque landscape to watch seals or visit farms to buy raw-milk cheeses and locally made beers and ciders. Photo by Pinkcandy/Shutterstock

Leblanc-Jomphe, who trained as a geographer, leads me from the parking lot onto a sandy beach at the mouth of the harbor of Grande-Entrée, which is bracketed to the north and south by strips of dune. In her work as project manager for Attention Frag’Îles, a nonprofit association that for over 30 years has worked to protect the Magdalens’ fragile coastal ecosystem of dunes, lagoons, marshes, and sandstone cliffs, Leblanc-Jomphe keeps a close eye on dozens of sites affected by sea level rise and human activity. Just offshore, the sandy bottom slopes off into a channel deep enough to allow heavily laden barges to enter the harbor. The force of the waves subjects this stretch of shorefront to relentless erosion. A few years ago, the sea cut channels through the foredune, the ridge that faces the water, threatening a half-dozen homes and businesses. Sand was dredged from the channel’s bottom and dumped on the shore to nourish the beach. Almost immediately, the waves bore it away.

“Then they tried to armor the shore with big rocks,” Leblanc-Jomphe tells me, “but the waves here are so high that they were completely washed away by storms. So we took a risk and tried something we never had before.” Attention Frag’Îles assembled dozens of wooden lobster traps donated by local fishermen, and after removing plastic cords, rubber, metal, and other non-biodegradable materials, tied them together to form a chain parallel to the shore. “We covered them with a mega-load of thousands of tonnes of sand, to reconstitute the dune.” Blowing wind aggregates sand around the solid wooden spine of the traps, allowing the dune to grow back.

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