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The Here and Now of Climate Change: Storms and Sea Level Rise in Canada

In early January, Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson announced that a part of the city’s iconic seawall would be closed for major repairs following damage from winter storms over the previous month. Mayor Robertson, in no uncertain terms, attributed the unusually serious damage to rising sea levels and climate change. “Seawall damage = cost of climate change + sea level rise,” he posted to his more than 30,000 Twitter followers, along with Vancouver resident John Woakes’ startling December 17 video of violent waves crashing past the beach and demolishing a walkway. 

 
Woakes, who has lived in the city since 1995, took the video during his morning commute to work. “I was amazed by the height of the sea,” he told DeSmog. “It was higher than I've ever seen it. There were places under water that I've never seen under water before. … I was actually cycling through seawater at one point – it was five or six inches deep and I couldn't see where I was cycling. I knew I had to get out.” 
 
“It was the most incredible thing I've ever seen on that route.”
 

 
City Councillor Andrea Reimer confirms the waves that day were the highest in recorded history – a staggering 16.4 feet. “I would say we're absolutely feeling the effects of climate change,” she says. “It's hard not to look outside and say, jeez, the weather is different.”  
 
Although Simon Fraser University professor and CRC Chair in Natural Hazard Research John Clague is reticent to call any one coastal winter storm direct evidence of climate change, he expects damage from serious storms to grow more severe in coming years. 
 
“In the future, we can expect more of this,” he says. “Sea level will rise. It's currently rising at a rate of about three millimetres per year. Of course, when you say that to most people, you put your fingers together and three millimetres isn't really that much, but that's a continuous process and over a period of decades, that does amount to a lot. Storms, tides are built on top of that higher sea level, so that any rare storm event is going to inevitably be more severe.”
 
In February of last year, Clague and a panel of colleagues warned the B.C. government that Vancouver should expect a rise of about one metre by 2100, forever changing the shape of the coastal city and endangering several outlying communities. 
 
A report released by the government of British Columbia Forest, Land and Natural Resources Water Management Branch in October 2012 estimated the cost of adapting Vancouver and surrounding communities to rising sea levels at $9,470 million over the century.
 
“That's for one city,” Clague says. “You think about the potential impact right across the country on both coasts, it could amount to more than $100 billion to deal with this problem in one country. In a way, Vancouver is likely to be the most impacted city because it has the highest population near sea level, but other cities—Victoria, Nanaimo, Halifax, Dartmouth—they're all having to deal with this as well.”
 
On the other side of the country, the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre has been carrying out community discussions on the impact of climate change on the small Cape Breton community of Chéticamp Island. 
 
Although imprecise and antiquated mapping technology have made it difficult to specifically track the coast’s change through time, project manager Veronika Brzeski says that residents of the community have ample anecdotal evidence that their town is disappearing into the ocean. “There’s a post office in Chéticamp that’s so close to the water, it’s scary,” says Brzeski. “One of the men at the community meeting said he used to play soccer behind it. There was a field there and now it’s gone.”
 
She tracks this damage not just to rising sea levels but also to warmer winters which have reduced the amount of ice that would normally dampen the impact of waves during winter storms.
 
To help anticipate future erosion of the coastline, which could lead to flooding in the centre of the scenic tourist destination and historic fishing town, researchers with Ecology Action Centre use a 3D map of the coast created with Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology. Brzeski points out that this is the same technology that helped the northeast coast of the United States prepare for Hurricane Sandy, the ‘superstorm’ that unequivocally linked climate change to extreme weather events. 
 
Predictive technologies, however, will help residents anticipate, not mitigate, events already in process.
 
According to Ecology Action Centre, there are three possible ways to prepare for changes to our coasts brought on by climate change: armour, accommodate or retreat. To armour means to build up coastal defense around the shores with rock barriers, for example, that would prevent wave damage. To accommodate entails a variety of strategies, including encouraging the growth of vegetation close to the water line to prevent serious erosion. And a retreat would see the halt of residential and commercial development along coastal areas entirely. 
 
At this point, says Brzeski, inaction is simply not an option. 
 
Back on the West Coast, Clague warns that there is only so much that a city like Vancouver can take. “We can accommodate up to a metre of sea level rise,” he says. “If you get any more than that, it gets prohibitively expensive and the defensive measures you can take are probably not going to be very effective.”
 
Then it won’t be a matter of cosmetic damage to a tourist icon like the seawall, but the complete loss of communities such as the suburban city of Richmond, which is home to about 200,000 people. “You can only raise the dykes so much to protect that low lying area,” Clague says. “Unless something changes or sea level stabilizes, ultimately down the road maybe 200 years, if we're going the way we're going, we're going to have to abandon that surface.”
 
Both Brzeski and Clague see the greatest defense against rising sea levels in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that would help stabilize global temperatures. 
 
Unfortunately, says Clague, it is simply too late to prevent the damage completely. A new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, due later this year, will give us an idea of what we can expect for the future.
 
“There's a certain amount that's locked in, with the projected forecast warming that we have,” Clague warns. “Once carbon dioxide is in the air, it stays in the air for a long time. The question now is more how we behave globally as people toward the middle of the century. Can we begin to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will, toward the end of this century and toward the end of the next century, reduce the sea level rise?”
 
Image Credit: Evan Leeson, via Flickr.

 

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