Facing the Change: 50% of Lennox Island, P.E.I., could be underwater in 50 years

Lennox Island, a small First Nations community on Prince Edward Island, is beginning to disappear amid the rising waters of the Atlantic Ocean, having already lost one square kilometre of land in a single generation.

'The future just doesn't look that bright' for Lennox Island, says climate scientist

Climate scientist Adam Fenech says Lennox Island is losing about one hectare a year to rising sea levels. (Laura Chapin/CBC)

CBC Radio's Day 6 kicks off its fall season with Facing the Change, a special series profiling five communities in Canada facing serious threats from climate change right now. The first instalment is Lennox Island, P.E.I.

Lennox Island, a small First Nations community on Prince Edward Island, is beginning to disappear amid the rising waters of the Atlantic Ocean, having already lost one square kilometre of land in a single generation.

Dave Haley, the property manager for Lennox Island, lives just six metres from the ocean and he's losing about a metre of his backyard each year as water continues to creep closer. In a few years, his house could be in the sea.

"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."

On average, Lennox Island is just four metres above sea level and is eroding twice as fast as the rest of P.E.I., says Adam Fenech, director of the Climate Research Lab at the University of Prince Edward Island. He believes sea levels will continue to rise in the next 50 years.

"A lot of the most recent science is telling us it could rise as much as three metres during that time," says Fenech. "Probably in about 50 years, with a three-metre increase, we'd probably lose about half the island under water completely."

David Haley's home on the shore in Lennox could be in the water in six or seven years. (Laura Chapin / CBC)

'We're out of luck, we'll be done'

In addition to threatening residents' homes, rising waters could also compromise the island's infrastructure — namely, the community's only bridge to P.E.I. and its water supply.

Chief Matilda Ramjattan of the Lennox Island First Nation recalls being at her cousin's wedding in 2010 when a storm surge flooded the bridge.

"Somebody came in and said, 'The bridge has been washed out on Lennox Island, it's been barricaded off, you can't get on or off,'" she says. "With nature working against us, sometimes it makes us realize our fragility of life and the fragility of our island."

Fenech says the concrete-and-steel bridge is "quite secure" and will not likely be destroyed, but it is a "danger" during a storm surge and has to be closed to drivers and pedestrians.

Chief Matilda Ramjattan of the Lennox Island First Nation says she will not leave even if the water supply were compromised. (Laura Chapin / CBC)

"If ever there's some other emergency that's occurring on Lennox Island, they cannot get the emergency vehicles there," he said. "So that's the real risk right now."

Fenech also describes the sewage lagoon as "probably the most vulnerable piece of infrastructure" on the island.

"The coastline comes right up to the sewage treatment facility," he says. "It's really too darn close to the shoreline."

That puts the facility at risk of being compromised during a storm surge — something Ramjattan also worries about.

"If it does get breached, we're out of luck¸ we'll be done" she says. "We don't want all this [waste] flowing over into our water supply."

A major storm could also contaminate the community's drinking water, according to Fenech.

"If you do get the storm surge, it can seep into the well water — and if the salt gets into the water, it's so difficult to get it out."

Island's past and future at risk

Lennox Island is also in danger of losing its cultural heritage, with water destroying areas where First Nations collect materials for ceremonies — such as feathers, shells, stones and wood — and even flooding burial grounds.

"It's part of our history that's gone. There's a wealth of knowledge that's gone," says Gilbert Sark, a Lennox Island resident and community leader. "Not only that, it's somebody's loved one that's gone. Someone's family member, their remains are now scattered."

Fenech says residents are always on edge whenever there is a storm surge warning.

One child says Lennox Island will be 'a bridge going nowhere' in 25 to 50 years. (Laura Chapin/CBC)

"I've been there in the community when they've received their storm surge forecast, and there's a certain level of panic that comes over everybody," he said. "They don't know how much of their heritage is going to be lost as a result of one of these storms."

Fenech says the future "just doesn't look that bright" for Lennox Island, a sentiment echoed by Sark, who recalls one child's answer to the question: Where do you see Lennox Island in 25 to 50 years?

"Answer from one little kid was, 'A bridge going nowhere,' meaning our Lennox bridge and there's no Lennox Island," he said. "So if that's coming from a little kid, then I guess I got to start looking into something."

If that something is moving off the island, Haley expresses caution.

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

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story described Dr. Adam Fenech as a Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist. In fact, he contributed to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
    Nov 01, 2016 3:22 PM ET
  • This story has been updated to clarify that the sewage treatment facility and the drinking water supply are separate facilities, and that both are potentially under threat from storm surges.
    Sep 13, 2016 4:03 PM ET