PERCE, Quebec (AP) — Against devastating seas, Quebec’s coastal communities have learned through bitter experience that the way to advance against climate change is to retreat.
Over the past decade, civilization has been withdrawn from the water’s edge wherever possible along the eastern reaches of the Gaspe Peninsula, where the coast is particularly vulnerable to erosion. The defenses erected against the sea centuries ago have been dismantled, rock by rock, concrete block by block.
Forillon National Park, nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Perce, cleared a road that the ocean turned into heavy chunks year after year as winters warmed and the coast’s protective sea ice melted away.
In Perce, a city of several thousand people that swells in the summer, an artificial beach has been “fed” with pebbles and given to nature to sculpt. After storms destroyed the old boardwalk, a new one was built farther from the water, without the concrete wall that had only added to the fury of the storm surges.
When you try to wall the sea, the communities here have learned, the sea prevails. Less destruction occurs when waves have less to destroy.
The idea is to “move with the sea, not against it,” said Marie-Dominique Nadeau-Girard, manager of Quebec park services which includes the world-famous Bonaventure Island seabird sanctuary. and the enormous Perce Rock, a touchstone of natural and cultural wonder that dominates the landscape.
“We have to work with the elements,” he said from the Parc national de l’lle-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Perce offices. To fight nature is to realize that “we are not going to win.”
So also in Forillon, where the park ecologist Daniel Sigouin says: “We have decided to withdraw and let nature evolve naturally”.
Not all places in the world where climate change accelerates coastal erosion can withstand blows like this. The condos that crowd US beaches aren’t going anywhere unless or until such beach living becomes unsustainable.
But the Gaspe Peninsula approach is a testing ground for remote locations where a strategic capitulation to nature is possible, even with historic human settlements in the mix.
Along the peninsula’s coasts, once-reliable mid-winter coastal ice bearings have been largely absent for a quarter of a century.
In Perce, the ritual trek over the ice floes to Bonaventure, 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) from the city, was not possible for several decades. Chances are, said Canadian Ice Service meteorologist George Karaganis, that “in 20 or 30 years, those people who went to Bonaventure Island will all be gone — people will never remember walking to Bonaventure.”
The history of modern Canadian winters, indeed of all seasons, is a history of disruptions attributed to warming temperatures and rising sea levels.
“Historical warming has led to changes in rain and snow, rivers and lakes, ice and coastal areas,” said the Canadian government’s 2019 climate report, “and these changes are challenging our sense of what a ‘normal’ climate is”.
In Forillon, Sigouin authored a recent report on a seven-year project to adapt the park to climate change. “In the winter, there was always ice cover from December to the end of March,” he said. “That ice cover protected the coast from coastal erosion.
“But as temperatures are getting hotter, there is almost no ice in that area. As there is less and less ice, we have seen more and more of the effect of coastal erosion.”
In Forillon’s plan to accommodate the natural rhythms of the coast, officials have also been concerned with preserving – and honoring – the human footprint.
The peninsula is sparsely populated and has far less affluence than the maritime playgrounds of the US Atlantic coast. But it is central to the founding of New France: French explorer Jacques Cartier landed in the early 1500s, and settlers settled coastal villages in the late 1700s.
The park is where the Irish Monument stands – recently relocated further inland and – in memory of the 120-150 lives lost when the Carricks, an Irish vessel bound for the St. Lawrence River, ran aground off the coast of Cap-des -Rosiers on April 28, 1847.
Despite all that history, the Forillon climate project was still able to eliminate infrastructure along 80% of the coast. In addition to removing a road, relocating the monument, and rehabilitating natural habitats, the park removed piles of large rocks known as riprap, a common defense for roadside and seaside structures that has become part of the problem.
Then there’s Perce Rock, immortalized by explorers in the 1500s and artists and poets ever since. It stands as a testament to the natural processes of erosion even without climate change.
The massive formation loses hundreds of tons every year. Where once there were at least three arches, now there is only one, and someday the “pierced rock” itself will disappear.
The quaint town, however, is grappling with the more immediate consequences of global warming.
In Perce, severe storms in 2016 convinced officials that the old ways of holding back the sea wouldn’t work. By then it had become apparent that rigid structures such as the city’s damaged seawall often worsened the risks of destruction.
Rather than absorbing wave energy, breakwaters and riprap can create an undertow that collides with incoming waves, engineers figured out, triggering supercharged turbulence that chews up shoreline protection.
In areas of Perce where strict barriers have been built for generations, the width of the beaches has decreased by about 70%.
In 2017, with those barriers largely cleared, 7,500 truckloads of coarse pebbles, such as those found naturally on the region’s beaches, were deposited in the city’s South Cove and left out to sea to settle into a gentle slope.
Officials expect rehabilitation of the bay to take 40 to 50 years. But who really knows?
“Over the next few decades, the greatest uncertainty about the extent of future climate change is rooted in uncertainty about human behavior,” says the 2019 Canadian study, namely “whether the world will follow a path of low, medium or high emissions.
“Until the climate stabilizes,” he says, “there will be no new ‘normal’ climate.”
Larson reported from Washington.