CBC Radio’s Day 6 kicks off its fall season with Facing the Change, a special series profiling five communities in Canada facing serious threats from climate change right now. The first installment is Lennox Island. P.E.I.
Lennox Island, a small First Nations community in Prince Edward Island, is beginning to disappear amid the rising waters of the Atlantic Ocean, having already lost one square kilometre of land in a single generation.
Dave Haley, the property manager for Lennox Island, lives just six metres from the ocean but is losing about a metre of his backyard each year as water continue to creep closer. In a few years, his house could be gone.
“A lot of people don’t realize the power of water,” says Haley. “A lot of people want to turn a blind eye, but, look, it’s happening.”
On average, Lennox Island is just four metres above sea level and is eroding twice as fast as the rest of P.E.I., losing just under one hectare every year, says Adam Fenech, a Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist and the director of the Climate Research Lab at the University of Prince Edward Island. He believes shorelines will continue to rise in the next 50 years.
“A lot of the most recent science is telling us it could rise as much as three metres during that time,” says Fenech. “Probably in about 50 years, with the three-metre increase, we’d probably see half the island in the water completely.”
‘We’re out of luck, we’ll be done’
In addition to threatening residents’ homes, rising waters could pose risks to the island’s habitability by possibly compromising its infrastructure, namely the only bridge to P.E.I. and the water treatment plant.
Chief Matilda Ramjattan of the Lennox Island First Nation recalls being at her cousin’s wedding in 2010 when a storm surge flooded the bridge.
“Somebody came in and said, ‘The bridge has been washed out on Lennox Island, it’s been barricaded off, you can’t get off,'” she says. “With nature working against us, sometimes it makes us realize our fragility of life and the fragility of our island.”
Fenech says the bridge is “quite secure” and will not likely be destroyed, but he says it is closed off to drivers and pedestrians during a storm surge.
“If there’s ever an emergency that’s occurring on Lennox Island, they cannot get the emergency vehicle there. So that’s the real risk right now.”
Fenech also describes the sewage treatment plant as “probably the most vulnerable piece of infrastructure” on the island.
“The coastline comes right up to the the sewage treatment plant,” he says, noting it was only built 10 years ago. “A lot of the water supply for the island comes from ground water, and if you do get a storm surge, it can seep into the well water.”
That risk is something Ramjattan worries about.
“If it does get breached, we’re out of luck¸ we’ll be done” she says. “Knowing my people, knowing myself, I would truck water in to live here because this is our home.”
Island’s past and future at risk
Lennox Island is also in danger of losing its cultural heritage, with water destroying areas were First Nations collect materials for ceremonies — such as feathers, shells, stones and wood — and even flooding burial grounds.
“It’s part of our history that’s gone. Theres a wealth of knowledge that’s gone,” says Glibert Sark, a Lennox Island resident and community leader. “Not only that, it’s somebody’s loves one that’s gone. Someone’s family member, their remains are now scattered.”
Fenech says residents are always on edge whenever there is a storm surge warning.
“I’ve been there in the community when they’ve received their storm surge forecast and there’s a certain level of panic that comes over everybody,” he says. “They don’t know how much of their heritage is going to be lost as a result of one of these storms.”
Fenech says “the future just doesn’t look that bright” for Lennox Island, a sentiment echoed by Sark, who recalls one child’s answer to the question: Where do you see Lennox Island in 25 to 50 years?
“Answer from one little kid was, ‘A bridge going nowhere,’ meaning our Lennox bridge and there’s no Lennox Island,” he says. “So if that’s coming from a little kid, then I guess I got to start looking into something.”
If that something is moving out of the island, Haley expresses caution.
“It’s great to say we can have land elsewhere, [but] who’s to say that land is safe?”
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