A ravaged Quebec coast fights climate change by retreating

PERCE, Que. (AP) — Against raging seas, Quebec’s coastal communities have learned through bitter experience that the way to move forward against climate change is to retreat.

Over the past decade, civilization has moved as far away from the water’s edge as possible along the eastern portion of the Gaspé Peninsula where the coastline is particularly vulnerable to erosion. The sea defenses erected centuries ago have been dismantled, stone by stone, piece of concrete by piece.

Forillon National Park, nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Percé, removed a road that the ocean turned into large chunks of asphalt and strewn with rocks year after year as winters warmed and the protective sea ice from the shore was disappearing.

In Percé, a town of several thousand people teeming with summer visitors drawn by the majestic seascape, an artificial beach has been “fed” with pebbles and given to nature to carve it. After extreme storms destroyed the town’s old seaside promenade, a new one was built farther from the water and without the concrete wall that had only added to the fury of the waves of storm.

When trying to wall off the sea, communities have learned here, 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, services manager at the Quebec park which encompasses the world-renowned Bonaventure Island seabird sanctuary and the enormous Percé Rock, a natural and cultural marvel. touchstone that dominates the panorama.

“You have to deal with the elements,” she says from the offices of Parc national de l’Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé. To fight nature is to realize “we are not going to win”.

This is also the case in Forillon, where park ecologist Daniel Sigouin says: “We decided to withdraw and let nature evolve naturally.

Not every place in the world where climate change is accelerating coastal erosion can take hits like this. Expensive condos on America’s beachfronts aren’t going anywhere unless or until global warming and rising oceans make such beachfront living unsustainable.

But the approach to the Gaspé Peninsula is a test for remote places where strategic surrender to nature is possible, even with historic human settlements in the mix.


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

In Percé, the ritual of trekking through the pack ice to Bonaventure, 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) from the town has not been possible for several decades. It is likely, said meteorologist George Karaganis of the Canadian Ice Service, that “20 or 30 years later, the people who walked to Bonaventure Island will all be gone – people will never remember having walked to Bonaventure”.

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

“But as the temperatures increase more and more, in this area, there is almost no ice left. As the ice is less and less present, we have increasingly observed the effect of coastal erosion .”

High cliffs are not exempt from what happens at sea level.

“One of the things with climate change is that there are more and more periods of rock freezing and thawing, with temperatures varying above and below zero degrees Celsius,” said Sigouin. “Water penetrating rocks will tend to break the rock as it sets. You have more cliff erosion because of that.


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

Less snow is falling on average across much of Canada, the duration of arctic lake ice cover has decreased by 80%, storm surges and waves appear more intense, and permafrost is no longer permanent in places, according to the study.

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

Karaganis, which tracks and forecasts the ice cover of the Gulf of St. Lawrence for government, mariners and scientists, has produced maps showing the long-term decline of accumulated ice in those waters. From 1971 to 1995, he said, the amount of ice was above the modern median almost every year, but “after 1996 almost every year is below that median.”


The Canadian government’s project in Forillon aimed to adapt to the natural rhythms of the coast, restore a special spawning ground for capelin and let the waves take over. Yet officials were also keen to preserve — and honor — the human footprint.

The peninsula is sparsely populated and has far less wealth than the maritime playgrounds of the American Atlantic coast. But it is central to the founding of New France – French explorer Jacques Cartier made landfall in the early 1500s and settlers settled in coastal hamlets in the late 1700s.

The park is where the Irish monument stands – recently moved further inland – to commemorate the 120-150 lives lost when the Carricks, an Irish ship bound for the St. stranded off Cap-des-Rosiers on April 28, 1847.

It wasn’t until 1968 that the ship’s bell was found, on a beach more than 600 kilometers (nearly 400 miles) northeast near Labrador. And in 2011, a huge storm uncovered the 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 this history, the Forillon climate project still managed to eliminate infrastructure on 80% of the coastline. In addition to removing a road, relocating the monument and rehabilitating natural habitats, the park washed away piles of large boulders known as rip rap – a common defense for roads and beachfront facilities that is become part of the problem.

At a spot in Forillon where Maine’s International Appalachian Trail ends, a lighthouse and abandoned outhouse stand on a rugged cliff overlooking the sea below. Human residents have long been absent; the local population consists of porcupines and bears.


Immortalized by explorers as early as the 1500s and artists and poets ever since, Rocher Percé bears witness to the natural processes of erosion, even without climate change.

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

The quaint town that overlooks this icon, however, is grappling with the more immediate consequences of global warming.

In Percé, severe weather conditions in 2016, capped by a devastating storm in December, convinced officials that old methods of sea containment would not be enough.

By then, it had become apparent that rigid structures such as the damaged city embankment often increased the risk of destruction.

Rather than absorbing wave energy, seawalls and riprap can create eddies that collide with incoming waves, engineers realized, triggering supercharged turbulence that eats away at shoreline protection and accelerates erosion of rocks. adjacent lands.

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

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

In 2017, with these obstacles removed, 7,500 trucks loaded with large pebbles, such as those found naturally on the area’s beaches, were dropped off at the city’s southern cove and left in the sea to s Organize on a gentle slope to gradually absorb the power of the waves.

One of the two towers built after the storms to provide a view of the damage has been maintained “to remind Percé of the fragility and vulnerability to climate change,” an exhibit says, “and to provide more people with an unobstructed view. on the coast and the gulf.”

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

Officials predict that the rehabilitation of the cove 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 is rooted in uncertainty about human behavior,” the 2019 Canadian study says, about “whether the world will follow a trajectory low, medium or high emissions.

“Until the climate stabilizes,” he says, “there will be no new ‘normal’ climate.”


Larson reported from Washington.


The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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