Waves crash on the dock at the Northern Yacht Club in North Sydney on Sept. 24 in the aftermath of post-tropical storm Fiona. - Nicole Sullivan/Saltwire Network file photo

CAN - 'Too big of a beast to pull back at this point': The clock is ticking on sea level rise and we can't stop it, says Newfoundland expert, so it's time to retreat

Vulnerable coastal communities should consider managed retreat

HARBOUR MAIN, N.L. — While the world is scrambling to try to lower greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to slow global warming, there's no stopping the rising ocean.

That's obviously important in Atlantic Canada, where many people live in close proximity to the sea, having established the strong connection through centuries of economic necessity.

Emma Power is a consultant with Fundamental Inc., a company based in Harbour Main, N.L. that works with communities and businesses to help them find effective ways to be more resilient when it comes to dealing with the impacts of climate change.

Just as there's a lot of uncertainty about how much more precipitation will fall or how much hotter the weather might get, there is uncertainty about just how much the sea will rise – and when.

But, said Power, there is no uncertainty in the fact sea-level rise will happen.

“Even if emissions do come down a bunch and temperatures stabilize, the ocean is still going to change,” said Power.

“It’s too big of a beast to pull back at this point. Ice has melted and will continue to melt, and we just can’t reverse that in the way we can potentially reverse other things.”

Coastal communities at risk

The rising sea level is one of the biggest risks to all coastal communities, especially the low-elevation ones.

Post-tropical storm Fiona left a wide swath of coastal destruction across Atlantic Canada, particularly in coastal communities, and is a reminder of the risk of living perilously close to the edge of the shoreline. But the biggest impact of that storm was due to a strong storm surge that struck at high tide.

The bigger issue is the oceans are still rising and could rise by a metre by the end of the century.

“When sea level rises, maybe the storm surges will get worse and maybe not,” said Power.

“But, even if they are the same as they are now, the baseline (will be) so much higher, then it will seem like a storm surge is bigger than before. If (sea levels) are up a metre already to start with, then add two metres (of storm surge) to that and you’re pretty far inland then.”

Managed retreat

Without detailed investigation and assessment, it’s hard to predict what the specific risks are for particular areas, let alone determine what, if anything, can be done to protect existing infrastructure or mitigate damage from events associated with rising sea levels.

“To me, the most reasonable thing to do is move further from the coast,” said Power.

In climate change circles, that is called managed retreat, and Power acknowledged it’s a difficult topic to talk about.

“People are very tied to where they live,” she said. “We love being able to see the ocean. We built these communities usually based on the fishing economy – everything is near the coast because it had a reason to be back in the day.

“But, there really isn’t much we can do to protect that stuff that isn’t going to be a waste of money in the end, in my opinion. You can build walls and all those things, but it will be very difficult to build it to a degree that will guarantee anything because these forces are so strong and there’s not a lot of fighting it we can do.”

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