What On Earth

'It scares the bejesus out of me': coastal erosion eats away at Nova Scotia's waterfront

Climate change is accelerating the erosion of Nova Scotia's coastlines. As sea levels rise, bigger waves are hitting the coast, leading to more erosion — and experts, governments and property owners are racing against time to find solutions to save the coastline.

Climate change is accelerating the erosion of Atlantic Canada coastlines

Stan Peach says the backyard in his Port Morien, N.S., house has shrunk by tens of metres since he was a child. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

Before long, the house where Stan Peach's 92 year-old mother, Joyce, has lived most of her life will be lost to the sea. 

"Nobody is going in that house when mom passes," Peach told What On Earth guest host Portia Clark. "That house will be knocked down and … the erosion will come right into the street and eventually you'll have to close off that street if you don't do something about it."

When Peach's grandfather built the home in Port Morien, N.S., in 1910 he says it was at least 30 metres from the edge of the cliff overlooking the ocean.

Now the cliff is much closer.

"There's only 15 feet [3.5 metres] between my mom's house and that cliff," said Peach, adding that he can see the shore and even the incoming tides from the bathroom window.

"It scares the bejesus out of me."

Climate change is accelerating the erosion of Nova Scotia's coastlines. As sea levels rise, bigger waves are hitting the coast, leading to more erosion — and experts, governments and property owners are racing against time to find solutions to save the coastline.

A 2019 report from the Council of Canadian Academies said rising sea levels threaten coastal communities in many parts of the country, which could lead to flooding, property damage, injuries and population displacement.

The report said that sea-level rise in Atlantic Canada in particular "is expected to exceed the global average."

Overhead view of Stan Peach's house in Port Morien, N.S. He says the cliff overlooking the coast is much closer than it was in the years past. (Jeff McNeil)

Peach was 10 years old when his family moved into their house. He remembers when the property included a large backyard along the waterfront.

"You could throw a ball around … and we just went down over the cliff there to go swimming," he said. "There was a path that went down there; there's no way down there now. It's straight down."

His father put a fence along the cliff many years ago and had to move it back every five years or so as the land eroded; now, Peach says, the fence has to be moved every two or three years. "That fence is ready to fall over the cliff right now." 

Peach wants to see his family's property protected somehow. He knows the house will be knocked down, but says "if the property was protected it could be a look-off, you know, for people to come and take pictures. But if it's allowed to continue to erode, it's not going to be there."

Stan Peach and his mother Joyce Peach stand in the yard of the family's house in Port Morien, N.S. They say the cliff overlooking the shore has become much closer to their home in recent years. (Jeff McNeil)

Peach says there was a mudslide on part of the cliff following a major winter storm in February, something that never would have happened in the past, when the mud would have been frozen hard for the entire winter. 

"It's changing big time," said Peach, who added he worries about what the future will be like for his grandkids.

"I don't know what they're going to have facing them when they're my age." 

Coastal erosion happening around the world: prof

"I worry about her home and the actual part of that cliff actually failing tomorrow or with the next major rainstorm," said geo-morphologist Danika van Proosdij, professor at Saint Mary's University and Director of the University's TransCoastal Adaptations Centre for Nature-Based Solutions.

"This is a scenario that is repeating itself across Atlantic Canada, across Canada and globally, where erosion is accelerating and we are losing very large pieces of property and it is a huge hazard for coastal residents living in those particular areas."

Danika Van Proosdij, seen here at a salt marsh near Windsor, N.S., in 2020, says coastal erosion can be seen in Nova Scotia but also in other coastal areas of Canada and worldwide. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

Van Proosdij has witnessed the erosion first-hand. During 2003's Hurricane Juan she saw massive waves decimate the lobster pound near her home in St. Margarets Bay, N.S. Another time, when she was hiking along the Bay of Fundy, she saw a big section of cliff fall down. 

The Nova Scotia government passed the Coastal Protection Act in 2019 and is now figuring out what regulations should be part of it. It's set to become law in 2023. But the law only curbs development and new structures right on the shoreline; the solutions for families like the Peach's are less clear. 

WATCH | 2012 report on coastal erosion in Cape Breton

Homeowners fear coastal erosion

11 years ago
Duration 2:34
Homeowners in Cape Breton say their homes are washing away, and they want government help to fix the problem.

Van Proosdij said she would like to see more resources allocated to implement the Act, and says she has some concerns about the province's ability to enforce it.

In an email, a spokesperson from Nova Scotia's Department of Environment and Climate Change told What on Earth that the province will provide training, guidance, documents, maps, and ongoing support to municipalities for enforcement.

"As proposed, the regulations would exempt repair or modification of a legal, existing structure located within the coastal protection zone," the spokesperson wrote.

We have to reimagine how our coastlines look.- Danika van Proosdij

Nature holds some solutions to the problem of coastal erosion, according to Van Proosdij. It could mean rebuilding a sand dune or oyster reef or creating a "living shoreline", which involves re-establishing natural ecosystems such as wetlands in front of an eroding area.

"You have a section that is vegetated and also is able to take the carbon dioxide from the air and store it as carbon within its roots and within its tissues itself," said Van Proosdij, "and it provides a buffer against wave energy."

Nature-based solutions like this have a long history in the area and they are more affordable than building a hard wall against the sea. 

Rosemarie Lohnes is CEO and president of Helping Nature Heal, a company based in Bridgewater, N.S., whose environmental work includes building living shorelines. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

Rosmarie Lohnes, CEO and president of Helping Nature Heal, told What on Earth she's worked with homeowners for more than 20 years to keep erosion at bay by creating living shorelines, planting plants and trees.

These interventions can be effective, but Van Proosdij acknowledges that rock-and-concrete barriers still tend to be perceived as more secure by many property owners than nature-based solutions like living shorelines. 

"We have to reimagine how our coastlines look," she said.

"If we are able to integrate more natural elements, we are going to have a more sustainable coastal zone and be able to have a safer future for ourselves and future generations."

Written by Kristin Nelson. Produced by Devin Nguyen and Serena Renner.

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