Just as a new UN report comes out that says the world is on the brink of a climate catastrophe, a small town in Canada bears witness to the consequences first-hand.
The sounds of outdoors are now indoors. Where walls once stood, cries of the gulls carry into broken rooms with sandy floors.
The UN report is of the most definitive ever published about climate change, the report asserts that human activities have transformed the planet at a pace and scale unmatched in recorded history, causing irreversible damage to communities and ecosystems. It has been authored by the world’s leading climate scientists and issued by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The horror story of climate change was already evident to the people in the small Newfoundland community of Port-aux-Basque.
Houses that had withstood the ocean for hundreds of years were torn open and swept away by Hurricane Fiona.
More than 100 homes were lost on a Fall day in 2022. One woman — 73-year-old Thelma Leeman — was swallowed by the sea.
In a recent CBC Radio documentary, as the storm built up Thelma assured her partner Norm Hinks to “go move your boats, I’ll be fine”. Norm went out just as a big wave swept over the house. The only thing left was a stone wall. Salt water ran everywhere. Her body was found the next day.
Everything was gone. Norm explained that he now has nothing left to do. He has got PTSD, he is on two lots of pills, “and if you saw my dreams they would scare you.” Norm’s mother said that his bladder was too close to his eyes. “Sometimes I wonder if life will be worth it all. I’m over 70 years old. I had a book about my life started on the computer, and Thelma was editing it.”
The computer too is now gone.
Norm says he might replace the house with a memory bench: “In the summertime, it is so pretty.”
The waves came up the inlet and took many other houses. The water reached up 70 feet and the waves kept rolling up higher and higher.
The people of Port aux Basques are learning to navigate a new climate reality, now that the changing coastline is impacting the identities of those who built their life on the sea.
They built their homes on the water, because their way of life was the water.
The town was settled by fisher-folk from the Channel Islands off England in the early 1700s. Port aux Basques refers to the harbour that was a favoured sheltering and watering place for Basque whalers who hailed from the Basque region of the Pyrenees of France and Spain during the early 16th century. It grew modestly to a population of 3,500.
People are not abandoning the town; they are tough and are rebuilding. But many who used to love the ocean, now do not have the same feeling. The province is providing money for them to rebuild their homes.
A company called Fundamental Inc. consults with communities about their vulnerabilities and what solutions exist. In many cases, retreating from the coast is the safest, most cost effective option. This option — “Managed Retreat” — moves habitats in a timely fashion further from the coast. It is drawing up plans to make Port aux Basques and other communities more resilient when it comes to dealing with the further impacts of climate change. Company consultant Emma Power said there is no uncertainty in the fact that sea-level rise will happen: “Even if emissions do come down a bunch and temperatures stabilize, the ocean is still going to change. 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.”
As sea levels rise, the baseline for storm surges like Fiona will be higher, and the results more devastating. “If (sea levels) are up a meter already to start with, then add two meters (of storm surge) to that and you’re pretty far inland then,” added Emma.
This far the company has worked with over 30 communities across Newfoundland and Labrador, helping them plan for a future that will include rising sea levels, more powerful storm surges, and annual flooding that exceeds anything seen before. Within the next ten years, coastal roads and dozens of communities could be flooded out.
The problem is the same on Canada’s west coast.
The city of Richmond, B.C., alongside Vancouver, home to more than 250,000 people, could see severe flooding if the temperatures keep rising and the ocean moves in. As it is the site of an international airport and one of the largest bulk export facilities in North America, it will no doubt be protected by flood defences — but they will cost billions of dollars.
On the East Coast, the Tantramar Marsh in New Brunswick may become permanently below sea level. In fact, it is already on borrowed time: in the 17th century, Acadian settlers earth dams to keep the tides out of marshland and turn it into productive farms. Humans may not have taken the land from the sea, in the long run; rather, we’ve only borrowed it for a while. The critical problem is that $45-billion worth of trade passes along highways built through the marsh. The adjacent Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in world. A storm surge there would test the defences of any engineered system.
For Canada, dealing with rising water levels is a heartburn issue. Canada has the world’s longest coastline. Instead of dealing with rising water one site at a time, it makes much more sense to stop the ocean’s rise.
Ocean rise is a global problem, so Canada will have allies. Fiona damaged the entire Atlantic Coast. Before Fiona, Tropical storm Nicole raged across Florida. Overall, sea levels are projected to rise by one foot in the coming 30 years — as much as it has risen in the previous 100 years. Tide and storm surge heights will increase and flood additional inland areas. By 2050, “moderate” (typically damaging) flooding is expected to occur some ten times more often than it does today.
According to a NOAS report: “Failing to curb future C02 emissions could cause an additional 1.5–5 feet (0.5–1.5 meters) of rise for a total of 3.5–7 feet (1.1–2.1 meters) by the end of this century.”
This swallows more coastline than one would guess. For every 1 foot of vertical rise in sea level, 100 feet of shoreline is swallowed up on typical shore slope.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is greater now than it has been for the past five million years. At that time, sea levels were 75 to 120 feet higher.
Such visions of a future apocalyse would not be needed to terrify the residents of Port aux Basques. They had their moment already, during a severe storm at today’s ocean levels.
The threat is not in twenty years, or ten years, or even five years. The threat is now, and we are beginning to live it.
The UN report set out the devastation that has already been inflicted on swathes of the world. Extreme weather caused by climate breakdown is leading to increased deaths from intensifying heatwaves in all regions, millions of lives and homes destroyed in droughts and floods, millions of people facing hunger, and “increasingly irreversible losses” in vital ecosystems. The report has been described as “almost certainly the last such assessment while the world still has a chance of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the threshold beyond which our damage to the climate will rapidly become irreversible.”
Climate change is no longer an abstraction, when the waves take a house that has stood for hundreds of years.
Climate change, as they say, is Job One.
Please join and help.
This article was written by Barry Gander, who is solely responsible for all its content.
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10C Locked In – James Hansen and 14 other scientists.
The paper is under peer review.
A climate expert explained the paper this way.
“If we stop burning fossil fuel today we’ll reach 8C within 100 to 200 years. If we continue burning fossil fuel we’ll reach 10C within 100 to 200 years.
Here’s the full study.