Facing The Change: 5 Canadian communities threatened by climate change now

Produced by Annie Bender and Craig Desson. Written by Laura Wright.

An island crumbling into the ocean. A city that could go up in flames. A traditional lifestyle at risk.

Climate change is already having an impact in cities and towns across Canada. In this series, Day 6 zooms in on five communities that are already feeling the consequences as the planet heats up.

We chose communities in vastly different parts of the country — a mix of large urban centres, mid-size cities and remote villages.

For the people who call these places home, climate change isn’t just a vague threat; it’s a daily reality.

Lennox island

LENNOX ISLAND, P.E.I. — Sitting on his back porch, Dave Haley can see the Atlantic Ocean lapping at the shore of his backyard, just six metres from his home.

This peaceful place is Lennox Island, a small 540-hectare Mi’kmaq reserve northwest of P.E.I. It has the red sandy beaches and blue skies the region is known for.

Haley, the property manager for the island, knows he may not be able to call this place home for much longer.

The island, home to 470 people, is under threat. The water lapping at its shores is eroding its sandstone foundation.

At the going rate, scientists estimate half the island could disappear in 50 years.

"A lot of people don't realize the power of water," said Haley. "A lot of people want to turn a blind eye, but, look, it's happening."

This 3D projection shows how much of Lennox Island could disappear, metre by metre, as the sea rises. (Adam Fenech/University of Prince Edward Island)

“People don't really realize the power of water — it moves everything and we should be more aware,” he says.

Storm surges threaten the community’s water treatment and sewage facilities.

In 2010, a particularly bad storm washed out the island’s only bridge, cutting off access to the rest of P.E.I.

Water came right up to many of his neighbours’ homes.

Their past is at risk, as well as their future.

First Nations people have used the island for thousands of years. Now, they’re worried about losing their ancestral home. Some burial grounds and places where they collect feathers, shells and wood for ceremonies are disappearing beneath the waves.

The community has invested in shore protection to slow the erosion and is working with archaeologists to preserve as many of the island’s artifacts as possible.

But they know they may eventually need to move off the island, and they’ve already purchased land on P.E.I.

"It's great to say we can have land elsewhere, [but] who's to say that land is safe?” Haley asks.

To hear more about how climate change is affecting people in Lennox Island, listen to our radio segment.

Toronto

TORONTO, ONTARIO — Beverly Silva is visibly upset as she pulls her car over — a torrential downpour has made it almost impossible to see the road.

What would be an annoyance for most brings up painful memories for her.

In 2013, a month's worth of rain fell on Toronto in a matter of hours, washing out roads, flooding subways and causing widespread power outages.

Silva rushed to her North York home, finding her basement submerged under nearly a metre of water.

Silva describes the damage to her home after flooding hit.

Over the years, the single mother had already repeatedly renovated her red-brick bungalow due to flooding.

After the 2013 storm, she says her insurance company canceled her coverage.

“It wasn’t my fault, it was the city’s fault. The infrastructure was just worn out and wasn’t working,” she says.

Silva had to move out of the home she had lived in for 30 years. She sold it for below market value and now lives in a condo.

“[Flooding] washes away part of your life,” she says.

Blair Feltmate, a climate scientist at the University of Waterloo, says Silva’s story is not unique and Toronto needs to step up its planning to protect its growing population.

In the next 30 to 40 years, the number of rainy days in the city is expected to double, and the thunderstorms will become more extreme.

Toronto has taken some steps to mitigate the effects of heavier rainfalls, including the development of programs to disconnect downspouts and to provide backwater valves and sump pumps to homeowners.

But it may not be enough.

“If the financial district were shut down, the cascading negative effects of that would be felt right across the country. Not acting is not an option,” says Blair Feltmate.

To hear more about how climate change is affecting people in Toronto, listen to our radio segment.

Prince Albert

PRINCE ALBERT, SASKATCHEWAN — A cigarette in hand, firefighter Cliff Buettner drives through the forests north of Prince Albert, pointing out the dead branches that cover the forest floor.

Those branches fuel wildfires and he’s concerned they haven’t been cleared.

Buettner has lived in Prince Albert since his early twenties and has been fighting fires for over 35 years. He’s the Forestry Director with the Prince Albert Grand Council.

His Chevy truck has 384,000 kilometres on it from driving around Northern Saskatchewan, where he’s the go-to guy for fire management.

When the wildfires hit Fort McMurray this summer, Buettner was watching closely.

He says his city could just as easily have gone up in flames.

“We [saw] the intensity of the fire at McMurray, and we anticipated we were going to have the same situation that potentially could affect any one of our communities or First Nations in Saskatchewan.”

Prince Albert, a city of 35,000, sits right on the edge of Saskatchewan’s boreal forest with some homes and businesses nestled right in the trees. A lightning strike or cigarette butt could put the entire city at risk.

The size and location of wildfires across Saskatchewan on May 15 and August 25, 2015. (Saskatchewan Wildfire Management Branch)

Northern Saskatchewan is no stranger to devastating wildfires. An unprecedented wildfire season overwhelmed the province in 2015, forcing the evacuation of some 13,000 people.

It was one of the worst summers Buettner has seen in his 35 years of fighting fires.

Buettner discusses the changes he’s seen in forest fire trends.

No single wildfire can be directly attributed to climate change. But temperatures across the province are on the rise. The Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg estimates that by 2080, the average annual temperature in Prince Albert could jump by four degrees Celsius. That hot weather, combined with a higher risk of drought, is expected to produce more wildfires.

Fire management experts from the Provincial Wildfire Centre in Prince Albert are working to educate residents through their FireSmart program, which encourages people to clear the brush and dead leaves surrounding their homes.

But Buettner says more fires are on the way.

“We seem to have more conditions favourable for higher intensity fires, and the frequency, I expect, will increase.”

To hear more about how climate change is affecting people in Prince Albert, listen to our radio segment.

Richmond

RICHMOND, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Brett Peters’ home and office are just steps from the Pacific Ocean. And as a diver, exploring the water is a big part of his life.

A chiropractor, Peters has lived in Steveston, a waterfront neighbourhood on the southern end of Richmond, for 26 years. He’s raised his family here and treats many people in the city, just south of Vancouver.

But a rising ocean is threatening Richmond — which is situated on a floodplain and is, on average, just a metre above sea level.

Sea levels on the coast of the Fraser Delta are expected to rise about 1.2 metres by the end of the century, which will increase the risk of flooding even further.

Because of rising sea levels, Peters is thinking of leaving.

“We’re going to look to move somewhere that's a little higher above the water level,” he says.

The city is not without protection. It’s surrounded by dikes, which sit about 60 centimeters above the highest water levels that have ever been recorded on the Fraser Basin. The dikes are built to withstand the sort of major flood that only comes once every 200 years.

A 2014 provincial study found that by 2100, major flooding that once happened every 200 to 500 years could happen every 50 years.

Peters explains his fears around flooding, and frustration that more isn’t being done.

The province is spending $16.6 million to improve Richmond’s pump stations, which expel excess water during floods. It has also spent millions on improving dikes along the Fraser Valley, which includes Richmond.

The City of Richmond has its own plan to improve its dikes, including building an outer perimeter around vulnerable areas. That’s on top of the $25 million the city is spending to improve its pump stations and raise the dikes that are already in place.

John Irving, director of engineering with the City of Richmond, says the city is on track to have all its dikes upgraded to protect against 1.2m of sea level rise within the next 30 years.

But Peters worries the work isn’t happening fast enough.

He said he’s stood on the docks at high tide, and water has seeped through the cracks. He doesn’t feel there is enough protection from storm surges.

That’s why he’s thinking about moving from the community that he feels is a part of his identity.

“If that water comes over the tip, it's going to affect us,” he says.

To hear more about how climate change is affecting people in Richmond, listen to our radio segment.

Old Crow

OLD CROW, YUKON — On a cool, clear, sunny morning in September, William Josie says he’s just returned from a hunting trip.

He’s on the phone in Old Crow, a remote fly-in community of about 300 people. The territory’s capital, Whitehorse, is a three hour flight south.

“I love my little community,” said Josie, who is the director of natural resources for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

The 56-year-old has lived in Old Crow his entire life, except for a few years away to attend high school and college. He chose to stay in Old Crow because he wanted his kids to grow up like he did.

“We kind of run our own affairs up here,” Josie says.

He spends a lot of time on the land, and what he sees concerns him.

Temperatures have increased 2 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years — twice the rate they’ve increased in southern Canada. And in northern Yukon, winters are warming even faster: on average, winter temperatures have jumped by 4 C in the last half century.

That’s making it difficult for the community to safely build the winter roads they rely on for access to their traditional hunting and fishing grounds.

Josie talks about the impact of warming temperatures on caribou.

Some animal populations, like birds and salmon, seem to be shrinking, Josie says. And he’s observed changes in caribou migration patterns this year, which he suspects could also be linked to climate change.

Permafrost thaw, combined with heavier rainfalls, are causing soil erosion and landslides around Old Crow. In some cases, the erosion has caused entire lakes to dry out. In 2007, the six-kilometre-long Zelma Lake, one of the largest in the Old Crow Flats, lost 60 per cent of its water in a month.

A map of permafrost thaw hazards in Old Crow. The red areas just north of the community are considered 'high risk' because of steep slopes that pose a risk of landslides. Development is not recommended in those areas. (Northern Climate ExChange/Yukon Research Centre)

The village is working closely with climate scientists. Earlier this month, the Northern Climate ExChange and its partners concluded a six-year project that mapped out which parts of Old Crow and other Northern communities will be most vulnerable to permafrost thaw as the climate continues to change.

The community is also working to install solar panels to ease their reliance on diesel fuel.

Despite the work, Josie does worry about future generations, who may see their way of life change dramatically.

“We’re just trying to adapt, but it’s definitely a challenge.”


Correction: an earlier version of this story said sea levels are expected to rise about 1.2 metres globally by the end of the century, when it is the sea levels near Richmond and the Fraser Delta that are expected to rise by that amount.

To hear more about how climate change is affecting people in Old Crow, listen to our radio segment.