Climate change means more storms, more risk of coastal erosion

James McLeod
Published on July 5, 2014
Concerns over climate change and its effect on coastal erosion is a major cause for concern, according to an Opposition MHA. — Telegram file photo

With hurricane Arthur bearing down on Atlantic Canada, Memorial University researcher Norm Catto says it’s too late to fix the mistakes of the past, but people should think about coastal erosion and climate change before they build a house too close to the coastline.

In 2011, Catto wrote a report that identified hundreds of communities at risk from coastal erosion.

Liberal MHA Tom Osborne has raised the issue in the House of Assembly a few times, saying the government needs to set tougher guidelines when it comes to development close to the water, instead of leaving it up to municipalities.

“We need to change the coastal development policy with an eye to the future — looking at the fact that there are stronger storm surges and rising sea levels, and that there are 250 communities with a high risk of coastal erosion,” Osborne said.

“It’s not just an environmental issue. It’s a public health and safety issue where you’re seeing properties falling into the ocean, as we’ve seen in Daniel’s Harbour.”

Last fall, then-minister Joan Shea said in the House of Assembly that it’s up to the provincial government to assist municipalities.

“There is a tool kit to help communities assess their vulnerability and we are willing to work with the communities to help them assess their risk,” Shea said. “Mr. Speaker, that is all in an attempt so that we can work with them to help them solve the problems or the issues that they may see.”

Environment Minister Terry French was unavailable to speak to The Telegram for this story.

This year’s budget allocated $500,000 to study coastal erosion.

Catto, who studies coastal management and the impacts of climate change, said in the grand scheme of things, Newfoundland is very lucky because the rocky coastline and steep contours of the island mean  there are relatively few places at risk of erosion.

Sea level rise, on average, is expected to be about three millimetres per year; that amounts to only about 30 centimetres over the next century.

The bigger impact comes from storms like Arthur.

“All the available evidence we have suggests that the storms are getting more frequent, they’re getting stronger, they’re statistically an earlier occurrence,” he said.

“Then you couple that with some bad decisions in terms of building next to the coastlines, and now you have more structures at risk.”

Catto said traditional fishing communities were much better protected, because the coastline was prime real estate for stages and stores, and the easily eroded soil was used for gardens, so the houses tended to be built on rock away from the shore.

More concerning, he said, is the relatively recent developments where people cut down the trees for the view and build closer to the water.

But even those decisions, he said, were often made a decade or more ago.

“It’s just difficult when the mistake has been made some time ago, and you have to deal with the consequences,” he said.

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