Coastal erosion in Percé

(Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

Elyse Boivin steps over piles of splintered wood, rocks and debris as she enters what was once her seaside café in Percé, Que.

Until recently, the Café de l'Atlantique was a charming, nautical-themed gathering place overlooking the sea and the majestic Percé Rock.

For decades, Boivin poured her heart into the café.

But last Dec. 30, during a particularly violent storm, the sea came barrelling through the windows, tearing the café apart.

Elyse Boivin café de l'Atlantique

(Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

"It was much worse than expected. The waves were 10 feet high, they were crashing in," says Boivin. "It's total destruction. It's a complete loss for us."

Residents say they could hear the waves pounding the shore from several kilometres away.

Many in the region say powerful storms, like the ones that hit here in December and again in January, are happening more often, and causing more damage.

Sign of things to come

All along the Gaspé coast, erosion is taking a toll. Homes, businesses, roads and railway tracks are threatened as the sea eats away at the land. Percé's tourism industry, among the region's most important economic drivers, is also at stake.

More than 400,000 people visit Percé every year, flocking to the shoreline to see the towering slab of rock that juts out of the water.

Inside the café de l'Atlantique before the storm

(Submitted by Elyse Boivin)

"People come here because when we look at Percé Rock, Mother Nature has always been strong and has had a huge impact on our landscape, and it reminds us how little strength we have compared to Mother Nature," says Nadia Minassian, prefect for the Regional Municipal County of Rocher-Percé.

With the climate changing, scientists predict more powerful storms with increased frequency in the years to come. As less sea ice forms to block the waves and protect the shore, the Gaspé and other coastal communities already vulnerable to erosion, will continue to be battered and more land will be washed away.

Rocher-Percé

(Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

"We expected the coastline to recede and retreat a bit, but the last storms proved that it could happen now, and it was even worse than we expected," says Ursule Boyer-Villemaire, a geographer and oceanographer. She was part of a study with the climate change research firm Ouranos that looked at the economic impact of climate change in Percé.

If erosion continues at the current rate, $700 million of infrastructure and tourism revenue could be lost over the next 50 years, the study found.

Waves in Chandler

(Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

"The options and the strategies that we had in mind for that area are not working and are not suited right now to the situation that we have in Percé," she says. If the village doesn't act now to adapt and protect its assets, she says the consequences will be costly down the line.

Destroyed boardwalk in Percé

Time to adapt

Percé and neighbouring communities are trying adapt for the long term. That means abandoning patchwork repairs storm after storm, and coming up with new ways to protect the land and infrastructure that line the coast.

The most recent storms destroyed the already damaged seawall and boardwalk the village of Percé built in the 1970s to keep the waves at bay. For decades, the boardwalk was an important tourist attraction, but researchers say when it comes to erosion, it did more harm than good. Waves would crash into the seawall, deflect back into the sea and return with even more force and height.

After a series of winter storms earlier this year, the Quebec government announced $3.5 million to study solutions to coastal erosion in 88 eastern Quebec communities.

Debris in Chandler

(Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

The emotional toll

In Chandler, Que., Brenda Murphy looks on as choppy waves swallow what is left of a piece of land that has been in her family for four generations. What was once a seaside vista with a modest cottage built by her father is now crumbled earth, swallowed by water. She tore down the battered cottage a few years ago, finally giving up on repeated repairs.

"Every time there is a storm you have to do something, you have to repair something," she said. "But it comes to a point where you have to stop someplace."

She invested $10,000 to build up the land last spring to try to protect it. In January, during another storm, the land itself was swallowed by the sea.

"I was planning on transferring it to my children and grandchildren," she said. "But I think the tradition will end there."

Brenda Murphy surveys her land

(Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

Possible solutions

In Percé, municipal officials want to tear down what's left of the decades-old seawall and rebuild a pebble beach in its place. It would absorb the waves, giving the sea back its due space. The village has asked the provincial and federal governments for $15 million for the project, with the hopes of completing it in time for the summer tourist season.

Still, some homes and businesses will likely have to move farther back from the sea. A plan for a new boardwalk is also in the works, but it would be built at a distance that gives the sea a comfortable buffer zone.

As it aims to adapt, Percé is also trying to sell tourists on virtues other than its famous shoreline, such as adventure tourism and hiking trails. Nadia Minassian, the prefect, says people should keep an eye on this region, because it's a sign of things to come for other coastal communities.

"What we're tasting here is nothing more than an avant-goût of what everyone else is going to have in the next few years," she says. "We always knew that eventually the coastline was going to be insecure, but we never thought it was going to be this quick."

With files from Jessica Rubinger