A stricken Quebec coast is fighting climate change by retreating

PERCE, Quebec (AP) — Against the ravaging seas, Quebec’s coastal communities have learned through bitter experience that the way to make headway against climate change is to retreat.

In the past decade, civilization has retreated from the waterfront where possible along the eastern part of the Gaspe Peninsula, where the coastline is particularly vulnerable to erosion. Defenses built against the sea centuries ago have been dismantled, brick by brick, piece of concrete by piece.

Forillon National Park, nearly 100 kilometers (60 mi) from Perce, removed a road that turned the ocean into heaving chunks year after year as winters warmed and protective sea ice disappeared from the coast.

In Perce, a town of several thousand that swells in summer, an artificial beach was “fed” with pebbles and given to nature to sculpt. After storms destroyed the old seaside promenade, a new one was built farther from the water, without the concrete wall that had only added to the fury of the storm waves.

If you try to shield the sea, the communities here learned, the sea wins. Less destruction occurs when waves have less to destroy.

The idea is to “go with the sea, not against it,” says Marie-Dominique Nadeau-Girard, service manager at the Quebec park that includes Bonaventure Island’s world-famous seabird sanctuary and massive Perce Rock, a natural wonder and cultural touchstone. dominating the panorama.

“We have to work with the elements,” she said from the offices of Parc national de l’lle-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Perce. To fight against nature is to realize that ‘we are not going to win’.

This is also the case in Forillon, where park ecologist Daniel Sigouin says: “We decided to withdraw and let nature evolve naturally.”

Not every location in the world where climate change accelerates coastal erosion can cope with these blows. Condos that crowd American beaches aren’t going anywhere unless or until such seaside living becomes unsustainable.

But the Gaspe Peninsula approach is a test case for remote places where strategic capitulation to nature is possible, even with historic human settlements in the mix.

Along the coasts of the peninsula, the once reliable buffers of deep winter coastal ice have been largely absent for a quarter of a century.

In Perce, the ritual of trekking across ice floes to Bonaventure, 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) from town, has not been possible for decades. It’s likely, said Canadian Ice Service meteorologist George Karaganis, that “20 or 30 years later, the people who walked to Bonaventure Island will all be gone — people will never remember walking to Bonaventure.”

The story of modern Canadian winters, indeed all seasons, is one of disruption attributed to global warming and rising seas.

“Historical warming has led to changes in rain and snow, rivers and lakes, ice and coastal areas,” said the Canadian government’s 2019 climate report, “and these changes challenge our idea of ​​what constitutes a ‘normal’ climate.”

At Forillon, Sigouin authored a recent report on a seven-year project to adapt the park to climate change. “In winter, from December to the end of March, there was always an ice cover,” he said. “That ice layer protected the coast against coastal erosion.

“But as temperatures continue to rise, there is almost no ice in that area. As there is less and less ice, we are increasingly seeing the effect of coastal erosion.”

In the Forillon project to give in to the natural rhythm of the coast, officials were also keen to preserve and honor the human imprint.

The peninsula is sparsely populated and far less affluent than the maritime playgrounds of America’s Atlantic coast. But it is central to the founding of New France – French explorer Jacques Cartier came ashore in the early 1500s and settlers settled coastal hamlets in the late 18th century.

Within the park stands the Irish Monument – recently moved further in – commemorating the 120 to 150 lives lost when the Carricks, an Irish ship bound for the St. Lawrence River, ran aground off the coast of Cap -des-Rosiers on April 28, 1847.

Despite all that history, Forillon’s climate project was still able to eliminate infrastructure along 80% of the coastline. In addition to removing a road, relocating the monument and rehabilitating natural habitats, the park has removed piles of large rocks known as riprap – a common defense for coastal roads and facilities that have come to be viewed as part of the problem .

Then there’s Perce Rock, immortalized by explorers in the 1500s and by artists and poets ever since. It stands as evidence of the natural processes of erosion even without climate change.

The massive formation sheds hundreds of tons each year. Where once there were at least three arches, now only one remains, and one distant day “the pierced rock” itself will disappear.

However, the picturesque town is struggling with more direct consequences of global warming.

In Perce, violent weather in 2016 convinced officials that the old ways of holding back the sea were not enough. By this time, it had become apparent that rigid structures, such as the city’s damaged seawall, often exacerbated the risks of destruction.

Instead of absorbing wave energy, seawalls and riprap could create backwash that collides with incoming waves, engineers realized, creating superturbulence that chews away coastal protection.

In the areas of Perce where strong protections had been built over generations, the width of the beaches decreased by about 70%.

In 2017, with such obstacles largely gone, 7,500 truckloads of coarse pebbles, such as those found naturally on the region’s beaches, were deposited at the city’s South Cove and headed out to sea to arrange them in a gentle slope.

Officials predict that the bay’s recovery will take 40 to 50 years. But who really knows?

“Beyond the next several decades, the greatest uncertainty about the magnitude of future climate change is rooted in uncertainty about human behavior,” says the 2019 Canadian study — namely, “whether the world will follow a path of low, medium or high emissions.

“Until the climate has stabilized,” it says, “there will be no new ‘normal’ climate.”


Larson reported from Washington.

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