As sea levels rise, this Mi'kmaq community is losing its land
Erosion is eating away at Lennox Island, P.E.I.
On Lennox Island, the signs of climate change are everywhere.
The coastal cave where Gilbert Sark played as a child has disappeared. The beachside location where his family used to have cookouts has shrunk, and the area where they once set up the firepit is now underwater. And the sacred burial grounds of his ancestors have had to be relocated, to protect them from erosion.
Eventually, he worries his entire community may have to follow suit.
"This is my home," he said. "And we're losing it."
Sark grew up on this 540 hectare island on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, the home of the Lennox Island First Nation.
In his lifetime, he's seen the low-lying island steadily erode, jeopardizing homes and critical infrastructure, and prompting some to wonder if the future of Lennox Island lies on the mainland.
"For Lennox Island, I hope we actually figure out how we can slow down the erosion," he said. "And that, further down in the future, we figure out how to actually start relocating, and just get ready for that."
PEI vulnerable to sea level rise
The composition of the land on P.E.I. — there are no rocky shores, only sand and sandstone — makes the whole island vulnerable to erosion and sea level rise, but Lennox Island is eroding twice as fast as the mainland, according to research from the University of Prince Edward Island.
Under normal conditions, some coastal erosion is inevitable, but climate change is accelerating the process, as sea levels rise, storms and storm surge grow more severe, and the patterns of sea ice change, resulting in less protection for the shore in the winter.
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Recently, Lennox Island has been losing roughly a hectare a year.
"It's really noticeable," said Sark.
In some places, such as the graveyard for Lennox Island's Catholic church, the community has stopped erosion by armouring the shore with small boulders and cages of rocks.
"Basically, we saved our graveyard."
A similar approach has been taken elsewhere, including at the causeway and bridge connecting Lennox Island to the mainland. Work is in the planning stages to protect other vulnerable spots in the community, with adaptations such as shoreline armouring or sacrificial reefs.
One spot that Sark hopes is protected is the community's powwow grounds, which he said has lost roughly a metre of land to erosion this year.
"Now that will only work for so long," he said. "If it's going to erode, you can slow it down and plan for it, but at the end of the day, you can't stop water."
Sark said the community's youth are well aware of the impending threat. When asked at a community meeting where they saw Lennox Island in 50 years, "they all put up their hands and said 'underwater.'"
Sark said that as a solution, the youth suggested building houses on land the community has purchased on the mainland.
"They're going to be the ones running the show," he said. "I feel confident in our young ones that they're going to make the right decisions."
But even if the community of Lennox Island is reconstituted in a different place, Sark said something will be lost if the island disappears.
"We've been here for over 10,000 years, only to find out, you know, after 10,000 years, we're finally losing our home."
- Sea levels are rising faster than they have in 2,800 years
- The world's oceans are warming faster than predicted
"I've only been here 40 years, okay. But my ancestors have been here for way longer. We lose Lennox, we lose a part of us."