Confronting rising seas on Lennox Island, Prince Edward Island

This case study involves the Mi’kmaq people who live on Lennox Island, which is a community of approximately 450 people just off the coast of Prince Edward Island in Canada. Although this community has lived on the island for thousands of years, climate change impacts of sea level rise, more intense and frequent storms, and warming winter weather impacting ice cover are threatening the community. These climate impacts are threatening not only this community’s homes and other infrastructure, but also its traditional way of life, cultural heritage, and traditional food systems such as oyster harvesting. In under 200 years Lennox Island has lost 400 acres of its land to the sea and continues to lose about 2.47 acres a year. The community is working with local researchers at the Climate Lab at the University of Prince Edward Island to map out what the future of Lennox Island could look like. Currently, community planners are working with the Lennox Island community to discuss planning regarding the long-term sustainability of the culture and community for generations to come.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The community is working closely with the Climate Lab at the University of Prince Edward Island to map out what the future of Lennox Island is likely to look like. In 2011 the community undertook a series of computer simulations aimed to develop a better understanding of the full impact of climate change on Lennox Island. Maps have been created that show which parts of the Island will be submerged by sea level rise as well as the areas of the island most impacted by coastal erosion. Maps use both historical climate data and future climate projections as a means of comparison.

Lennox Island First Nation is experiencing many climate impacts, including sea level rise (which could rise up to 3m in the next 50 years, translating to approximately half of the island’s land mass), changes in ice cover and thickness, melting of sea ice, coastal erosion, increases in storm surges, and damages to critical local infrastructure. The major climate risks and vulnerabilities facing the Lennox Island First Nation community include a loss of cultural heritage, loss of traditional way of life, loss of human security, extreme weather disruptions, and loss of homes and property loss. Key critical infrastructure is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including the only bridge that connects the island to the province of PEI, which significantly increases the vulnerability of the community in the event of an emergency. However, the sewage lagoon – which is located too close to the coastline – is potentially the most vulnerable piece of infrastructure. Of particular significance is the risk to cultural heritage; inundation from rising sea levels is impacting cultural heritage sites and land where the First Nation collects materials for ceremonies and flooding ancient burial grounds. There are also risks to the local oyster fishery. The island is losing its land base at an accelerating rate. Many community members feel that while climate action is necessary, it will only delay the inevitable, which is tremendously heavy to carry.

Identifying Actions

Community-wide consultations are currently underway to determine the best ways of implementing adaptation actions that will lessen the impacts of climate change to Lennox Island. Land use planning community engagement sessions are being held to gather the input from community members. Additionally, through its partnership with the University of Prince Edward Island, community planners are using highly detailed scientific information to help guide the community planning process and to safeguard the island for future generations. While grey infrastructure/coastal armouring solutions are seen as ideal, the community understands that these are not practical in terms of available resources. Although it is not the intention of the community to abandon the island, the community is exploring the possibility of developing property on PEI that the First Nation recently purchased; this would occur on an individual and case-by-case basis, focusing primarily on the most vulnerable homes and people. Overall, the approach is to slow and lessen the impacts of climate change so as to extend the ability of the community to live on Lennox Island. However, the community understands that it is highly likely that the entirety of the island could be under water in 100 years, which requires thoughtful planning ahead for the future of the First Nation community.

Implementation

Thus far, the community is mainly in the consultation and action development phase, although they have implemented several adaptation actions to date. One implemented adaptation action includes the implementation of a rock wall to protect Lennox Island’s cemetery (ancient burial grounds) against the impacts of sea level rise. Although these types of sea walls would be desirable for the entire island, the community understands that this is not logistically feasible with the available resources. The community also launched an “archaeological rescue” of a culturally significant shell midden site, which documents the life of the Mi’kmaq people who used an adjacent islet as a fishing base camp for thousands of years.

Next Steps

As the planning phase is currently ongoing, and actions are yet to be identified and implemented, monitoring progress will emerge as the implementation of actions begins over time. The community is continuing to work with the University of Prince Edward Island in order to better understand the impacts of climate change and the resulting risks and vulnerabilities facing the communities, which will equip the community with the information required in developing community-wide adaptation and land use plans that will safeguard Lennox Island First Nation members, and their cultural heritage, into the future.