'It's a little scary': On Lennox Island, no one debates whether climate change is real

Lennox Island, a small Mi'kmaq First Nation community in Prince Edward Island, is a kind of canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. It's one of the places in Canada where you can see the effects of climate change right now.

This small P.E.I. community is one of the places in Canada preparing for a changing world

Lennox Island is a small Mi'kmaq community of 450 people off the coast of P.E.I. It's also a kind of canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change.

Rising sea levels, storm surges and coastal erosion threaten its very existence; an estimated 300 football fields of land have already fallen into the sea.

In Canada, Lennox Island is a place where you can see the effects of climate change happening right now — and it's a community preparing for a changing world. 

Scientists agree that the world's climate has warmed over the past 120 years and that the warming is a result of human activities. The effects of this change in climate include melting ice caps, rising sea levels, drought in some parts of the world and extreme storms in other areas.

Looking west from the shores of Lennox Island sits the shining waters of Malpeque Bay. Locals say they used to play baseball where boats now float. 

(Nick Purdon/CBC )

Gilbert Sark, 37, has skipped rocks on Lennox Island's beaches since he was a little kid. Today he's the comprehensive community planner for the island.

​A generation ago, Sark says, Lennox Island measured 1,300 acres. Now it is down to 1,100. "We lose Lennox, we lose a lot," he says.

"Honestly, I worry about Lennox Island not being here … In my son's and my daughter's generation, maybe my grandkids' generation, there may be no Lennox Island. It will be eroding away if something is not done."

(Nick Purdon/CBC )

One of the first places protected by the people of Lennox Island was the graveyard.

"When I was younger, we used to make jokes that, sooner or later, when we were swimming down at the wharf, we are going to be swimming with some of the caskets that are going to fall out because of the way it is eroding," Sark says. "It's a little scary."

The community has spent thousands to shore up the bank even though Sark admits it's likely only a temporary solution.

"The burial site is safe for the time being," he says. "I am extremely happy on that part." 

It's a perfect storm of erosion on Lennox Island. 

The red sands of the island have always been vulnerable to erosion but things are getting worse, says Adam Fenech, a climatologist with the University of Prince Edward Island's climate lab.

As the oceans warm up and the sea levels rise, the tides get stronger as well. Seasonal storm surges are also more powerful than before, he says.

And with warmer winters, the banks don't stay frozen as long — so that natural protection is reduced as well. 

(Nick Purdon/CBC )

Around here, everyone has a story about climate change. 

"When I came to the island about five years ago," says Fenech, "I thought I'd have to convince a lot of people about climate change.

"But people were coming up to me to share their stories about what they were seeing — increasing temperatures, drier conditions and especially coastal erosion. Everybody has a story in which they come back after a particularly bad winter, and they find metres of their shoreline just completely disappeared."

And when it comes to one of the island's major pieces of infrastructure, a clear and present danger exists.

During a storm surge, Fenech says he has seen the water come up and lick the edge of the sewage lagoon on Lennox Island.

If the sewage lagoon is breached, it won't just pollute the fishery of Malpeque Bay, it could also contaminate the community's drinking water and make the island uninhabitable.

"It's precarious," says Fenech. "And it's precarious right now."

(Nick Purdon/CBC)

For years, Fenech wrote reports about how climate change could affect people's land, but he says nobody bothered to read them.

Then one of his undergraduate students suggested they create a video game to show the effects of climate change.

Fenech called the invention "Coastal Impact Visualization Environment," or CLIVE for short. 

Fenech took CLIVE on the road and showed people how climate change could affect their land.

"It really touches people on not just an intellectual level, but on an emotional level," he says. "That causes them to cry once in a while when they see something they value, and love, being impacted by rising sea levels."

Fenech based his animation on the one-metre sea level rise predicted by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to occur by the turn of the next century. He also added a storm surge of two metres. 

The Lennox Island sewage lagoon is in the foreground of the video.

"The island itself is no longer recognizable," Fenech says. "And these are realistic impacts. These are conservative impacts, not ridiculously exaggerated impacts."

(Nick Purdon/CBC )

On Lennox, fighting climate change is also about saving the past.

Jamie Thomas is the cultural co-ordinator on Lennox Island. It's her job to make sure the island's cultural heritage doesn't wash away.

The band has collected hundreds of artifacts, some of which are now on display at the Lennox Island Cultural Centre. "This is really who we are; this is where our people come from."

Archeological evidence, such as this arrowhead, proves that Indigenous people have lived on the shores of Malpeque Bay for 10,000 years. 

(Nick Purdon/CBC )
(Nick Purdon/CBC )

"It's going to come to you soon enough," says Danny Tuplin, who has lived on Lennox Island for 30 years.

Tuplin's house is one of the closest to the sea. "I have seen a big difference over the years," he says.

Tuplin thinks what's happening on Lennox Island is a snapshot of things to come everywhere.

"It's not only here," he says. "It's globally. So, yeah, open your eyes. It's coming to a station near you." 

(Nick Purdon/CBC )

This is part of a series of CBC News features on how climate change is affecting specific communities in Canada. Read the other stories in the series: