Coastal communities in Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula fight ravaging seas, climate change by retreating

Against the ravaging seas, Quebec’s coastal communities have learned through bitter experience that the way to advance against climate change is to retreat.

Over the past decade, civilization has been pulled back from the water’s edge where possible along the eastern stretch of the Gaspé Peninsula where coastline is particularly vulnerable to erosion. Defences erected against the sea ages ago have been dismantled, rock by rock, concrete chunk by chunk.

Forillon National Park, nearly 100 kilometres from Percé, removed a road that the ocean turned into heaving chunks of asphalt and scattered with boulders year after year, as winters warmed and the shore’s protective sea ice vanished.

In Percé, a town of several thousand that swells with summer visitors drawn to the majestic seascape, a manmade beach was “nourished” with pebbles and given to nature to sculpt. After extreme storms wrecked the town’s old seaside boardwalk, a new one was built farther from the water and without the concrete wall that had only added to storm wave fury.

When you try to wall off the sea, communities here learned, the sea prevails. Less destruction happens when waves have less to destroy.

The idea is to “move with the sea, not against it,” said Marie-Dominique Nadeau-Girard, services manager at the Quebec park that encompasses the world renowned seabird sanctuary of Bonaventure Island and the enormous Percé Rock, a natural marvel and cultural touchstone that dominates the panorama.

To fight nature is to realize “we’re not going to win,” she said from offices of Parc national de l’Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé. T

So, too, at Forillon, where park ecologist Daniel Sigouin says: “We decided to retreat, and let nature evolve naturally.”

Percé rock
Northern gannets dive for fish near Percé Rock just after sunrise. Experts say there’s little question that global warming is reshaping the lives of northern gannets by driving fish deeper into cooler waters and sometimes beyond their reach. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

Not every place in the world where climate change accelerates coastal erosion can roll with the punches like this. Expensive condos crowding U.S. beachfronts aren’t going anywhere unless or until the warming climate and rising oceans make such seaside living unsustainable.

But the Gaspé Peninsula’s approach is a test case for far-flung places where strategic capitulation to nature is possible, even with historic human settlements in the mix.

The vanishing ice

Along the peninsula’s shores, once-dependable buffers of coastal ice in deep winter have been largely absent for a quarter-century and may well vanish from living memory.

In Percé, the ritual of trekking across ice floes to Bonaventure, three kilometres from the town, hasn’t been possible for several decades. It is probable, said meteorologist George Karaganis of the Canadian Ice Service, that “20 or 30 years on, those people who walked to Bonaventure Island will all be gone — people will never remember walking to Bonaventure.”

People walk along the beach with Percé Rock
People walk along the beach with Percé Rock. After devastating winter storms several years ago that officials tied to climate change, they replenished the pebbles on the beach and let the sea shape them into a gentler slope to help absorb the impact of the waves. (Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster)

Sigouin, a Forillon biologist, is author of a recent report on a seven-year project to adapt the park to climate change. “In winter, there was always ice cover from December to late March,” he said. “That ice cover was protecting the coast from coastal erosion.

“But as temperatures are getting higher and higher, in that area, there’s almost no ice anymore. As ice is less and less present, we have seen more and more the effect of coastal erosion.”

The end of normal 

The story of modern Canadian winters, indeed all seasons, is one of disruption attributed to warming temperatures and rising seas. A 2019 government report on a decade of acceleration in the retreat and thinning of Arctic and alpine glaciers called it “unprecedented over several millennia.”

Less snow falls in much of Canada on average, the duration of Arctic lake ice cover is down 80 per cent, storm surges and waves appear more intense and the permafrost is no longer permanent in places, the study found.

Seabirds perch on a rock jutting from Bonaventure Island
Seabirds perch on a rock jutting from Bonaventure Island with Percé Rock. (Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster)

Karaganis, who tracks and forecasts Gulf of St. Lawrence ice cover for the government, seafarers and scientists, produced charts showing the long-term decline of accumulated ice in those waters. From 1971 through 1995, he said, the amount of ice was above the modern median almost every year, but “after 1996, almost every year is below that median line.”

At land’s end

The Canadian government’s project at Forillon was designed to yield to the coast’s natural rhythms, restore a particular spawning ground for capelin and let the waves win. Yet officials also were mindful of preserving — and honouring — the human imprint.

The peninsula is lightly populated and has much less wealth than the maritime playgrounds of the U.S. Atlantic coast. But it’s central in the founding of New France — French explorer Jacques Cartier made landfall in the early 1500s and colonists settled coastal hamlets in the late 1700s.

The park is where the Irish Monument stands — recently relocated farther inIand — in memory of 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.

Only in 1968 was the ship’s bell found, on a beach more than 600 kilometres to the northeast near Labrador. And in 2011, a huge storm uncovered human bones from a mass grave of 21 of the shipwreck’s victims, mostly women and children. The remains were buried at the monument’s new site.

Two double-crested cormorants dry their wings on shoreline rocks lining the Anse-a-Beaufils warf at Perce, Canada
Two double-crested cormorants dry their wings on shoreline rocks lining the Anse-a-Beaufils warf at Percé, Que. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

For all of that history, the Forillon climate project still was able to eliminate infrastructure along 80 per cent of the coastline. In addition to removing a road, relocating the monument and rehabilitating natural habitats, the park took away stacks of large rocks known as riprap — a common defence for seaside roads and facilities that has come to be seen as part of the problem.

By the Percé Rock

Immortalized by explorers back to the 1500s and artists and poets ever since, the Percé Rock stands as testament to 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 there is only one, and a distant day will come when “the pierced rock” itself will disappear.

The picturesque town that looks out on that icon, though, is grappling with more immediate consequences of global warming. In Percé, violent weather in 2016, capped by a devastating December storm, convinced officials the old ways of holding back the sea would not do.

Black and white imaged depicting Perce rock from 1978.
This 1768 image provided by the U.S. Library of Congress depicts the Percé Rock when it had two natural arches, before erosion and storms collapsed one of them, leaving a pillar and single arch. (Pierre Charles Canot/U.S. Library of Congress)

By then it had become apparent rigid structures such as the town’s damaged seawall often made the risks of destruction worse. Rather than absorbing wave energy, seawalls and riprap can create backwash that collides with incoming waves, engineers realized, setting off supercharged turbulence that chews away at shoreline protection and hastens erosion of adjacent land.

In Percé’s areas where rigid protections had been built over generations, the width of beaches decreased by about 70 per cent. In 2017, with such obstacles gone, 7,500 truckloads of coarse pebbles like ones found naturally on the region’s beaches were deposited at the town’s South Cove and left for the sea to arrange in a gentle slope to absorb the power of the waves gradually.

One of two towers built after the storms to provide views of the damage was kept in place “as a reminder of Percé’s fragility and vulnerability to climate change,” a display says, “and to offer to more people a breathtaking view of the coastline and the Gulf.”

The display adds: “We now know that seafronts should remain as natural as possible to preserve and even improve the ability of coastal systems to adapt to climate change.”

Officials project that the cove’s rehabilitation will last 40 to 50 years. But who really knows?

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

“Until climate is stabilized,” it says, “there will not be a new ‘normal’ climate.”

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