Devastated Quebec coastline fights climate change by withdrawing


December 20, 2022 GMT

PERCE, Quebec (AP) — Facing rough seas, Quebec’s coastal communities have learned through bitter experience that the way to move forward against climate change is to turn back.

Over the past decade, civilization has withdrawn from the water’s edge as much as possible along the eastern stretch of the Gaspe Peninsula, where the shoreline is particularly vulnerable to erosion. The defenses erected against the sea centuries ago have been dismantled, rock by rock, piece by piece of concrete.

Forillon National Park, nearly 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Perce, removed a road that the ocean turned to bits of asphalt and littered with rocks year after year as winters warmed and sea ice protected the shoreline. disappeared.

In Perce, a city of several thousand that fills with summer visitors drawn by the majestic seascape, an artificial beach was “fed” with pebbles and given to nature to sculpt. After extreme storms tore apart the city’s old boardwalk, a new one was built further from the water and without the concrete wall that had only increased the fury of the storm waves.

When you try to wall off the sea, the communities here learned, the sea prevails. Less destruction occurs when the waves have less to destroy.

The idea is to “move with the sea, not against it,” said Marie-Dominique Nadeau-Girard, manager of services at the Quebec park that encompasses the world-renowned Bonaventure Island seabird sanctuary. and the massive Perce Rock, a natural wonder and cultural touchstone 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 against nature is to realize that “we are not going to win”.

Also in Forillon, where park ecologist Daniel Sigouin says: “We decided to withdraw and let nature evolve naturally.”

Not all places in the world where climate change is accelerating coastal erosion can withstand shocks like this. The pricey condos that crowd America’s shores aren’t going anywhere unless or until warmer weather and rising oceans make seaside living untenable.

But the Gaspe Peninsula approach is a test case for remote locations. where strategic capitulation to nature is possible, even with historical human settlements thrown into the mix.


Along the peninsula’s shorelines, once-reliable coastal ice buffers in deep winter have been largely absent for a quarter of a century and may well fade from living memory.

In Perce, the ritual of walking on ice floes to Buenaventura, 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) from the city, has not been possible for several decades. It is likely, said Canadian Ice Service meteorologist George Karaganis, that “20 to 30 years from now, all the people who walked to Bonaventure Island will be gone; people will never remember walking to Bonaventure.”

Sigouin, a biologist from Forillon, is the author of a recent report in a seven-year project to adapt the park to climate change. “In winter, there was always a layer of ice from December to the end of March,” she said. “That ice sheet protected the coast from coastal erosion.

“But as temperatures get higher and higher, there is almost no ice in that area anymore. As ice is less and less present, we have seen more and more of the effect of coastal erosion.”

The high cliffs are not exempt from what happens at sea level.

“One of the things about climate change is that there are more and more periods of freezing and thawing of rocks, temperatures that vary above and below zero degrees Celsius,” Sigouin said. “Water that gets into rocks tends to break the rock when it freezes. You have more erosion of the cliffs because of that.”


The history of modern Canadian winters, indeed of all seasons, is one of disturbances attributed to warming temperatures and rising sea levels. A 2019 government report in a decade of accelerating retreat and thinning of arctic and alpine glaciers, he called it “unprecedented for several millennia.”

On average, less snow falls across much of Canada, the duration of the Arctic lake ice cover has been reduced by 80%, storm surges and waves appear more intense, and permafrost is no longer permanent in some places, according to the study.

“Historical warming has caused changes in rain and snow, rivers and lakes, ice and coastal areas,” he concludes.

Karaganis, which tracks and forecasts the Gulf of St. Lawrence ice sheet for government, seafarers and scientists, produced graphs showing the long-term decline in ice accumulation in those waters. From 1971 to 1995, he said, the amount of ice was above the modern mean almost every year, but “after 1996, almost every year it is below that mean line.”


The Canadian government’s Forillon project was designed to yield to the natural rhythms of the coast, restore a particular spawning area for capelin, and let the waves win. However, officials were also aware of preserving and honoring the human footprint.

The peninsula is sparsely populated and has much less wealth than the maritime playgrounds of the Atlantic coast of the United States. But it is instrumental in the founding of New France: French explorer Jacques Cartier made landfall in the early 16th century, and settlers settled in coastal villages in the late 18th century.

The park is home to the recently relocated further inland Irish Memorial, in memory of the 120-150 lives lost when the Carricks, an Irish ship headed for the St. Lawrence River, ran aground off the coast of Cap-des -Rosiers on April 28, 1847.

It was not until 1968 that the ship’s bell was found, on a beach more than 600 kilometers (nearly 400 miles) to the northeast, near Labrador. And in 2011, a major storm uncovered human bones from a mass grave of 21 of the shipwreck victims, mostly women and children. The remains were interred at the new monument site.

Despite all that history, the Forillon climate project was still able to remove infrastructure along 80% of the coastline. In addition to removing a road, relocating the monument and rehabilitating natural habitats, the park removed piles of large rocks known as breakwater, a common defense for highways and coastal facilities that is considered part of the problem.

At a spot in Forillon where the International Appalachian Trail from Maine ends, a lighthouse and an abandoned outbuilding stand on a sheer cliff overlooking the ocean in the distance. The human residents have been absent for a long time; the local population are porcupines and bears.


Immortalized by explorers since the 16th century and artists and poets ever since, Perce Rock is a testament to natural erosion processes even without climate change.

The massive formation spews out hundreds of tons each year. Where once there were at least three arches, now there is only one, and there will come a distant day when “the perforated rock” will disappear.

However, the picturesque city that looks up to that icon is dealing with more immediate consequences of global warming.

In Perce, violent weather in 2016, capped by a devastating storm in December, convinced officials that the old ways of holding back the sea would not cut it.

By then, it had become apparent that rigid structures, such as the damaged city boardwalk, often exacerbated the risks of destruction.

Instead of absorbing wave energy, the levees and breakwater can create an ebb that collides with incoming waves, engineers found, unleashing supercharged turbulence that destroys shoreline protection and accelerates land erosion. adjacent.

“When you have a rigid structure that protects against erosion, if the waves hit a wall at 90 degrees, some of the force goes up, splashing water, it’s spectacular,” Sigouin said. But “part of the force is reduced and drags the underwater part of the beach.”

In areas of Percé where rigid protections had been built for generations, the width of the beaches decreased by approximately 70%.

In 2017, once these obstacles were overcome, 7,500 trucks loaded with boulders, such as those found naturally on the region’s beaches, were deposited in the town’s South Cove and left in the sea to be disposed of. on a gentle slope that would gradually absorb the force of the waves.

One of two towers built after the storms to provide views of the damage was kept in place “as a reminder of Perce’s fragility and vulnerability to climate change,” says one exhibit, “and to give more people a view stunning coastline and gulf.”

The display adds: “We now know that seafronts need to remain as natural as possible to preserve and even enhance the ability of coastal systems to adapt to climate change.”

Officials project that the cove’s rehabilitation will take 40 to 50 years. But who really knows?

“Beyond the next few decades, the greatest uncertainty about the magnitude of future climate change lies in uncertainty about human behavior,” says the 2019 Canadian study, namely, “if the world follows a low-emissions path, medium or high

“Until the climate stabilizes,” he says, “there won’t be a new ‘normal’ climate.”


Larson reported from Washington.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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