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Water Today Title June 29, 2022

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Updated 2017/3/15
Sea level rise


By Ronan O'Doherty

John Steinbeck's revered novel, The Grapes of Wrath, tells the story of those beset by the Great Dustbowl disaster on the American Great Plains.

It is based on a true tale of climate migrants in the 1930s, who escaped an inhospitable former home and made their way across a country to neighbouring states that were remiss to accept them.

In small island states like Kiribati in the Central Pacific and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, new climate migrants are being created by rising global sea levels.

Could a similar tragedy befall Maritimers in Canada's Atlantic region? As the ocean inches up the coast a little quicker each year, it's certainly a possibility.

However, by most expert accounts, it is probably still quite a few generations away.

In the meantime, various organisations are trying to promote awareness and readiness for the changes inherent with the rising of sea levels.

Samantha Page is the Coastal Adaption Coordinator for Ecology Action Centre. She's front and centre as a spokesperson for the ECoAS project; a joint initiative by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and her firm.

"They asked us to take some of their scientific info around sea level rise and turn it into a more digestible format for the public," Page said, "With a view to give communities information on planning for sea level rise."

The project has a website, sealevelrise.ca, which is chock full of interesting info-graphic style layouts with facts and figures that are accessible for laypeople.

Nothing is exaggerated and no doomsday scenarios are cooked up.

"I think it's important for the individual to understand what's going on and feel empowered to do something about it." Page said. She referenced a National Geographic article that detailed oceans rising over 200 feet if all the polar ice were to melt, and said those sorts of media representations can be overwhelming for the average person to take in, sometimes making them think that they're incapable of making a difference.

"That's not the effect we're looking for with this project. We just want to get people moving," Page said.

Sea Level change is far from ubiquitous across oceans and can vary greatly from locale to locale. Many factors can come into play, however in Canada the top factor is vertical land motion.

During the last ice age, the middle of Canada was weighed down by a colossal glacier that covered most of the country. Since it has retreated, the land in the middle has slowly risen, while the outskirts, in this case the Atlantic Provinces, have been slowly sinking.

As part of the Aquatic Climate Change Adaptation Services Program (ACCASP), the DFO has created the Canadian Extreme Water Level Adaptation Tool (CAN-EWLAT).

The website describes the tool as "a science-based planning tool for climate change adaptation of coastal infrastructure related to future water-level extremes and changes in wave climate."

"It was an initiative within DFO to try and transition some of the research we'd done to products that could be used by people who weren't experts in the field," William Perrie, a research scientist with the DFO said. "Like policy makers or members of the public. If you wanted to get a broader view of changing impacts along the coast, this tool is helpful."

Extreme Water is a combination of factors including local tides, wave patterns, storm history and sea level rise from carbon emissions. There is an estimate for a medium level of climate change and one for a high level of climate change.

"When we talk about climate change, that brings another factor into this. If the water is warmer by a couple degrees, the storm percentage goes up. So maybe the 50 year storm occurs every ten years or every twenty years."

Based on these estimates, CAN-EWLAT provides vertical allowances in a number of small craft harbors (SCH) on coastlines around Canada. According to the CAN-EWLAT website, "Vertical allowances are recommended changes in the elevation of coastal infrastructure required to maintain the current level of flooding risk in a future scenario of sea level rise."

Many estimates point to a global sea level rise of around 1m or three feet by the year 2100. Although that might not sound apocalyptic, the change is very rapid and will have significant effect.

"The thing about those projections is they have a very high certainty of happening. Some reports are as high as 2.5 metres, which are plausible but not as likely," Page said. "Even if we go with one metre; with storm surges, high tides and full moons and seasonable variability; all those things in combination will create extreme water levels that will cause so much damage, especially when people aren't prepared for them."

Perrie believes that one of the biggest factors from climate change will be the lack of coastal ice. "Up until 2000 most of the St. Lawrence was frozen," he said," 50 years from now there'll be no ice. So there'll be waves where there weren't during winter, leaving many places vulnerable."

He also drew attention to Canada's largest river, the Mackenzie, saying the lack of sea ice in the Beaufort Sea at the its mouth is leaving it highly susceptible to major changes over the winter months, even with only a storm surge of 5%.

Page is hoping that sealevelrise.ca is able to promote awareness across a broad base.

"We're targeting fishermen, community members and also councillors and municipal officials," she said. "In Nova Scotia all of the bylaws and municipality strategies lie within the individual municipality, so we're targeting those councillors because at present they get to make those decisions."

She went on to point out that in Nova Scotia there is a need for provincial leadership in the province to develop best practices and standards for all the municipalities to use.

"We are one of the few jurisdictions that don't have any coastal policy. Considering we're almost an island it's not really great." Conservative estimates for the number of people displaced globally by climate change before the middle of the century are around 25 million. Some have it as high as a billion.

With the right planning and foreknowledge, Canadians will only make a small percentage of that number.

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