Sense of urgency profound as natives of Canadian island battle the sea

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    A retaining wall adjacent to St Anne's Cemetery on Lennox Island. The artificial barrier reinforces the hillside that has been eaten away by the sea, threatening to destabilize the cemetery land.

    The Blade/Matt Markey
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  • LENNOX ISLAND, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — The wind and the water have been eternal and often disruptive companions of this tiny patch of land that sits off the northwest coast of the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.

    Barely a pepper flake on most maps, this place occupies a position of prominence in the historical record of the Mi’kmaq who have resided here for more than 10,000 years. But in recent times, with each storm and whenever the sea raises its ire, the ocean is becoming more ravenous, biting away the home of these indigenous people who draw their livelihood from the very waters that now threaten to push them elsewhere.

    A resilient First Nations group, the Mi’kmaq are taking extreme measures in an attempt to mitigate the destruction that rising waters and calamitous weather events likely linked to fluctuations in the climate are having on Lennox Island, but it is a battle they are not certain they can win.

    Gilbert Sark, community planner for the Mi'kmaq people who have lived on Lennox Island for 10,000 years. Sark has watched the island lose land to the sea during his life.
    Gilbert Sark, community planner for the Mi'kmaq people who have lived on Lennox Island for 10,000 years. Sark has watched the island lose land to the sea during his life.

    “We’ve lived here for thousands of years, or many, many generations, but things are changing,” said Gilbert Sark, a community planner for the band of Mi’kmaq on Lennox Island. “The sea is rising, the storms come more often and are much stronger — in my mind it all points to climate change.”

    The historical record affirms Sark’s contention that Lennox Island is getting smaller. A survey conducted about 130 years ago put the island’s land mass at 1,520 acres. The most recent study in 2015 showed just 1,100 acres remain, the already fragile frame of sand and sandstone washing away at an alarming rate.

    “The erosion along the shoreline is much worse than it has ever been,” Sark said on a stormy early winter morning as the relentless winds off the Atlantic Ocean buffeted the tiny atoll. “We are losing our home, bit by bit, day by day.”

    INTERACTIVE: What Lennox Island would look like as the seas rise

    Sark points out a huge bulwark of stacked wire cages filled with rock, put in place behind the iconic St. Anne’s church, which owes its heritage to a Catholic mission established here in 1801. This artificial barrier reinforces the hillside that was being eaten away by the sea, threatening to destabilize the community’s cemetery and possibly send the caskets of Sark’s ancestors into the water.

    VIDEO: The impact of climate change on Lennox Island

    “When I was a kid, not that long ago, we played football right there,” Sark says, pointing to an area where a crumbling bank now stumbles down to the sea. “That kind of extreme erosion is taking place all around the island. Homes that used to be many feet from the sea are now dangerously close to the water.

    “I’m convinced that this erosion that is eating away at our island comes from global warming.”

    A troubling preview

    According to Adam Fenech, a Ph.D. and associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, Sark’s assertions are very likely accurate. Fenech said Lennox Island offers a troubling preview of the potential impact across the globe of how the melting of glaciers and polar ice has produced rising seas — all likely brought on by climate change.

    “It is difficult to predict exactly what will happen on Lennox Island, but we could see a sea level rise of possibly two to three meters over the next half century, and that would put about half of the island under water,” said Fenech, who is the director of the UPEI Climate Research Lab.

    A sea level change of just a few feet could inundate the sewage treatment plant on Lennox Island and claim a number of homes closest to the water’s edge. A more significant rise could also imperil Minigoo Fisheries, a lobster processing plant on the island that is the only one in Canada owned and operated by aboriginal people.

    “We are dealing with a lot of variables as we look at how the change in sea level threatens Lennox Island, but as we adjust our estimates, we see the needle moving in the wrong direction,” Fenech said. “The worst-case scenario is always evolving.”

    Fenech’s team closely monitors coastal erosion, and he said Lennox Island’s extremely low profile makes the Mi’kmaq community there highly vulnerable to the vagaries of the sea. The highest point on Lennox Island is just 26 feet above sea level, but most of the land sits much lower, and the island’s softer sandstone foundation does not fare well when an angry ocean comes calling.

    Fenech said that as the ocean warms, there is less ice in place to protect the shoreline in the winter months, and with the sea levels rising, the tides reach farther inland and storms take a greater toll.

    He added that Lennox Island is not alone in its struggle to try to stave off the advances of a rising and increasingly merciless sea. For native communities that dot the periphery of Canada and Alaska, as well as one much farther south in Louisiana, rising seas are not a theory or a prediction of future calamity — they are the reality of today.

    Rising seas

    On the island of Shishmaref in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, a community of about 550 native Inupiaq people voted to relocate their village because of rising seas that have devoured any buffer between their homes and the habitually stormy ocean. Shishmaref is just one of a couple hundred native villages that the U.S. government has identified as prone to facing serious threats from erosion and flooding brought on by rising sea levels.

    “These native communities are very vulnerable,” Fenech said, “since climate change often has its largest impact on the coasts and the northern part of the hemisphere.”

    His perspective is shared by Daniel Horton, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Research Group at Northwestern University. Horton pointed out that patterns of sea level rise are non-uniform, so the impact can be much more significant at certain sites, and barely registered elsewhere.

    “Ocean basins do not behave as big bathtubs,” Horton said. “Instead, coastal geography, geologic history, the source of additional water, and the magnitude of warming all play a role in determining where sea level rise impacts will be greatest.”

    Fenech said that in an effort to quantify the extent of coastal erosion and any increase in its intensity, the UPEI Climate Research Lab has made a very close examination of the period from 1968-2010, looking for changes on and around PEI.

    “We’ve found alarming increases in the erosion rates due to rising seas and an increase in the magnitude and frequency of storms,” Fenech said. “We’ve probably lost a foot of shoreline, on average, in that period. And the erosion around Lennox Island is likely double that of the rest of the island.

    “We expect the trend in increasing frequency and severity of storms will continue.”

    ‘We might not have a choice’

    Matilda Ramjattan was elected chief of the Lennox Island First Nation in 2016 and she has characterized the results of the UPEI Climate Lab’s study as “staggering”.

    Chief Ramjattan told CTV Atlantic in November that she is concerned about finding a long-term solution that will allow future generations to remain on Lennox Island, but the Mi’kmaq have purchased property on Prince Edward Island, should they need to move.

    “It’s not something we want to do — this island has been our home — but with the way the storms and the surges of the sea have been, we might not have a choice. The water might force us to move,” Sark said.

    Nearby on PEI, just a few miles from the causeway that connects Lennox Island to Canada’s smallest province, in an area known as the Tyne Valley, Wayne and Janice Trowsdale have made their home since 1964. “It seems that our weather has changed,” Janice Trowsdale said. “We seem to have had more frequent storm surges with strong winds in the recent years, which are causing more erosion along the coastline.”

    Sark has seen the destructive work of those storm surges on Lennox Island. “We’ve had artifacts exposed along the shore after these big erosion events,” Sark said. “It’s just a little bit here, a little bit there, but it is pretty much constantly happening.”

    Fenech said that his research has looked at 140 years of weather records for Charlottetown, the capital of PEI, and the data shows a distinct change to a warmer and drier climate, especially over the last decade or so.

    He expects that trend to continue, a view shared by many scientists who point to pollution from fossil fuels that they say blankets the atmosphere and heats the earth with a greenhouse effect as the primary driver behind climate change.

    “Climate change is a shared problem that requires shared responsibility from everyone,” Fenech said. “It is insufficient to ‘prioritize’ climate change adaptation; adapting to climate change must be considered a normal way of life.”

    Out on Lennox Island, Gilbert Sark says the sense of urgency is profound. He said that while some of the Mi’kmaq have pessimistically expressed expectations that their home here will be under water within the next half century, he wants to see significant measures put in place to extend the Mi’kmaq presence on this tiny parcel of land in Malpeque Bay.

    “We have lived here alongside the ocean for thousands of years, and our history is tied to this island,” he said. “I don’t want to see that end. We need to work together to try and preserve what he have. The kinds of changes that we are seeing here — they might be invisible to people living in Toronto or New York or Boston, but here on Lennox Island, we live with this every day.”

    Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.