PEI·CLIMATE CHANGE

'We're the most vulnerable': Measuring P.E.I.'s erosion from land and sky

Prince Edward Island has a major stake in climate change because of its impact on coastal erosion, and that's driving the UPEI Climate Lab and the P.E.I. government to closely monitor what's happening along the Island's shoreline.

'We do get erosion all around the Island, there's no place that's immune to it'

Andy MacDonald, of the UPEI Climate Lab, gets ready to measure the coastline erosion at Argyle Shore Provincial Park on P.E.I.'s south shore. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

This story is part of a CBC News series entitled In Our Backyard, which looks at the effects climate change is having in Canada, from extreme weather events to how it's reshaping our economy.


Prince Edward Island has a major stake in climate change because of its impact on coastal erosion, and that's driving the UPEI Climate Lab and the P.E.I. government to closely monitor what's happening along the Island's shoreline.

That includes annual on-the-ground measurements at 100 sites, along with drone surveys of the P.E.I. coastline, at more than 60 locations.  

The UPEI Climate Lab has been out to 12 different communities over the last four years, presenting their findings on coastal erosion.

Andy MacDonald measuring erosion at one of more than 100 pinned sites in P.E.I. in 2015. (UPEI)

"Islanders have always known about erosion, certainly if it wasn't their own property or their own cottage, it was their neighbour's or their family member's," said Adam Fenech, director of the climate lab.

"But certainly over the years it's become a greater concern because we know the sea levels are rising," he said. "With climate change, we anticipate stronger and more frequent storm events so people are getting a lot more concerned about these issues."

We found erosion at 1.43 metres, almost six feet. I wouldn't want to be losing that year to year.— Adam Fenech,  UPEI Climate Lab

The annual work to assess how much shoreline has been washed away into the ocean gives the scientists a clear idea of what areas of Prince Edward Island are most vulnerable. 

"The most important thing that we've learned is that if you've got a run of coastline here that there are places that are eroding or disappearing," said Fenech. "But there are also places that are creating or growing as well.

A lot of provinces will do aerial imagery every five or 10 years, but with the drones, the lab monitors the P.E.I. shoreline annually. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"Just to see what some of those dynamics are like and the rate of change that's been occurring, that's probably the best information that we can provide," Fenech said.

Andy MacDonald has been working on the coastline monitoring project since it started, including surveying with the drones since 2016.

"We certainly get a lot more information so we can get a better idea of what the shoreline erosion looks like in general across Prince Edward Island," MacDonald said.

"We tend to see between 20 and 40 centimetres on average per site annually, which is fairly substantial, but there's probably five to 10 sites that lose over a metre a year, which is always surprising to see."

At Argyle Shore Provincial Park on P.E.I's south shore, the drone team has found significant changes, making it one of the "hot spots" on their list.

"This is a particularly erosive site. The erosion rates fluctuate year to year but last year it was particularly bad here," Fenech said.

"At one of the points that we measured here, we found erosion at 1.43 metres, almost six feet. I wouldn't want to be losing that year to year."

This shoreline at Argyle Shore Provincial Park is severely washed away. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

2 metres or more

MacDonald said there are even sites that have lost two metres or more, from one year to the next.

"You don't want to see it, but usually a few times a year we'll come across big losses like that."

Fenech said the team keeps a close eye on any site that has been losing more than a metre of shoreline per year.

Adam Fenech takes one of the stake measurements at Argyle Shore Provincial Park. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"We get a little concerned ... and we go and take a look to see about the integrity of the coastline and to look at the infrastructure that surrounds it and what might be vulnerable to the continuation of that type of erosion," Fenech said.

"We do get erosion all around the Island, there's no place that's immune to it. Some places are hot spots, there is more erosion."

The shoreline at Camp Abegweit, on P.E.I.'s south shore. The evergreens are barely hanging on as the ground disappears beneath them. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Fenech said the amount of storm activity can play into the degree of erosion, as well as sea ice cover, because in some places, the ice can protect the coastline.

The monitoring started five years ago when the P.E.I. government gave the climate lab money to send two students to measure the rate of erosion at more than 100 spots across the Island, using pegs in the ground and a tape measure.

The drone flights take around 20 minutes per location, at 60 to 70 spots around the Island. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"With the peg line measurements, we are only measuring a few points along a particular beach," MacDonald said. 

"We might miss a big area that was lost due to a storm, so now we can cover the entire coastline."

Design adaptation measures

Fenech said the drones have revolutionized how they monitor change.

"It just helps in understanding how every single metre of the shoreline is changing over time in these hot spot areas," he said. 

"So that we can design adaptation measures, or ways in which we can try and reduce the amount of damage that's occurring."

Fenech said the drone flights are around 20 minutes per location, with about an hour to process the data at the climate lab and then another couple of hours to interpret how that coastline has changed over the year.

The eroding shoreline in front of the 1875 lighthouse at West Point, P.E.I. (Submitted by Carole Livingstone)

MacDonald agrees the drones are a valuable tool.

"A lot of provinces will do aerial imagery every five years, every 10 years, but what's nice with the drones is we can get out every season and do it," MacDonald said.

Fenech said it will be important to continue the annual drone surveys. 

"It's something that we need to continue into the longer term because it's this long-term change that is what climate change is all about," Fenech said.

Fenech says the team keeps a close eye on any site that has been losing more than a metre of shoreline per year. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"We're leading in Canada because we're the most vulnerable," Fenech said. 

"We are — as an island — just a large sand bar ... and that makes us particularly vulnerable, more so than any other place, any other province in the country."

More P.E.I. news

About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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