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Note: Sea levels are rising at a pace unparalleled in modern times and storms are becoming more intense as a result of global warming. This story is part of a weeklong series examining our rising oceans, the impact on our region and what government, scientists and others are doing to track change and mitigate damage.
A gang of bullies is threatening Canada’s ocean playground.
The menacing gang, run by kingpins climate change and rising sea water, terrorizes peaceful residents who live in coastal hamlets across Nova Scotia.
“The fact is that if people can’t get out, then what?” Barbara Carthew said of the ominous potential for the surging North Atlantic to wash out Kingsburg Road, the only transportation link to the Lunenburg County oceanfront community of Kingsburg.
“People would have to go to higher ground but not everyone can manage that,” said Carthew, who has lived with husband Haight for the past 20 years atop a hill overlooking the shoreline near Hirtle’s Beach.
“Wiser people than me have to think about alternative routes. When I’ve asked the municipality people, they said there is a route that would go over the hill and down into Riverport. How many people are able to do that? There are a fair number of seniors and maybe they are not able.”
Carthew said there is no trail to traverse the several kilometres of rugged wooded terrain that sits between Kingsburg and Riverport.
Carthew said she accepts the criticism from those who say the risk already existed when the privileged built luxury homes on expensive properties, but she said she and her neighbours are not in a unique situation.
“It’s a combination of low-lying land near the water and a hilly area surrounding it,” Carthew said. “When you have this combination, you have to start thinking, what if? I can only show you Kingsburg, I don’t know the other areas. But this is an example. There are lots of other (similar) areas around Nova Scotia.”
Carthew said if the municipality doesn’t want to accept liability for providing residents a safe and reliable exit strategy, then maybe people shouldn’t be permitted to build there in the first place. She also faulted real estate agents for focusing on sales instead of warning potential buyers about dangers.
Aaron Millen, president of the 1,500-member Nova Scotia Association of Realtors, said Realtors are obligated to provide potential buyers with both local knowledge and pertinent property information.
“If the seller made us aware of something, there would be a disclosure issue if somebody asked,” Millen said. “From a general knowledge point of view, if there is an area that’s prone to flooding, then that would be something we have to disclose.”
Sea level in Nova Scotia is forecast to rise by nearly a metre by the turn of the century. When water warms, it expands, and scientists attribute the warming temperature trends on land and sea primarily to greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity.
“There is so much moisture being released from the sea surface because that water is so warm it’s fuelling any storms and feeding any systems that are developing,” said Saltwire chief meteorologist Cindy Day.
She said the number of Category 4 and 5 storms have doubled since the 1970s and are expected to double again by the end of the century. Lesser storms are also expected to increase in intensity. Day said scientists have implied that the rate of change in the frequency of intense storms will increase but they haven’t gone as far to predict, for example, how frequently the former once-in-50-year storm will occur in the future.
“The sea surface temperature issue and the moisture releasing into the atmosphere is such that it would trump any regular ups and down or lulls in a regular weather pattern,” Day said.
“Winter storms will become more powerful. It may not snow more often in the winter but you might get two doozies that will be almost hurricane-like. The nor’easters will be more powerful. The number of lightning storms may not increase but the intensity of them will. This holds true for all low-pressure systems, all systems that are cyclonic that develop anywhere near this changing atmosphere of warmer temperature.”
What, then, is a province with 13,000 kilometres of coastline, including land around harbours, coves, inlets and tidal estuaries, to do to protect its people and its infrastructure?
The province is drafting coastal protection legislation, talking up its significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and directing all 51 municipal units to draw up climate change action plans.
Individual Nova Scotians are encouraged to become more energy efficient in their homes and on the road.
Still, it seems that little will change without a concerted effort, without everybody pulling in the same direction
Peter Bigelow, director of planning and development with Development Nova Scotia, the former Waterfront Development, pointed to cottage owners along the Northumberland Strait as example of the necessity of pulling together.
Some cottage owners complain of losing up to a metre of land in a single storm because of bank slumping, Bigelow said, but having one property owner doing mitigation work at the toe of the slope is ineffective.
“If they do it and their neighbour doesn’t do it, the ocean just comes in behind it all,” he said. “There has to be a consistent approach.”
Boris Worm, a German-born marine biology professor at Dalhousie University, says the consistent approach is needed worldwide.
“As we know in our personal life, we can adapt to change when it is reasonably slow,” Worm said. “We can adapt to changing coastlines, we can reroute major roads, build infrastructure, and we may have to give up on some parts. In the Netherlands, for example, they are already doing that. ‘OK, these plots of lands have to be given up, they get flooded. These have to be reinforced.’ You can do that, plan ahead and adapt in many ways if you have time.”
The goal of reducing emissions and becoming carbon neutral won’t reverse global warming, Worm said, but it will buy time to “make sure those events unfold more slowly, more gradually and that the end result will be a more livable world.”
Worm worries about the American anti-immigration stance that’s shared by several European nations, especially regarding poorer countries that could be ravaged by global-warming flooding.
“When you tackle a global challenge like climate change or sea level rise, it’s a detriment when you can’t speak with one voice anymore.”
The world’s leading climate scientists issued a dire warming in a recent United Nations climate change report that global warming must be curtailed to a maximum increase of 1.5 degrees over the next dozen years, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
“Our window for steering this in the direction where everybody wins is diminishing,” Worm said. “I’m guessing we have maybe a decade or so to do something meaningful, to all get in the same boat and build our economies into carbon-neutral economies, which is a huge opportunity. There’s a huge growth industry with renewables.”