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In December, 2010, the Quebec town of Sainte-Flavie learned what rising sea levels will mean when a combination of an unusually high tide and a wild winter storm drove a storm surge sweeping on shore.Remi Senechal/The Canadian Press

Mary Soderstrom’s latest book is Against the Seas: Saving Civilizations from Rising Waters.

Rising sea levels and climate change had once doomed the pretty little house in Sainte-Flavie, Que. Yet it was recently buzzing with activity. Inside, its owners Olivia Bernier and Jimmy LePage were getting ready to sow seeds for their market garden, Ferme Ravito. That the young couple are hunkered down chez eux preparing for a second season of small-scale agriculture is a tribute to a program to counter the effects of rising sea levels, a program that could show the way elsewhere.

What we’re talking here is strategic retreat, not compensation to cover flood damage after the fact. All provinces have some form of disaster relief and private insurance is sometimes available, too. But we must be pro-active, and the truth is, we have very few options. Even if we can bring down our carbon dioxide emissions and reverse the trend toward higher mean temperatures, the glacial meltwater pouring into the oceans is going to remain there and waves will crash higher and higher on the world’s shores.

This is nothing new. Ever since the end of the last Ice Age, roughly 20,000 years ago, sea levels have been rising. People coped by building various defences. The oldest example discovered so far is a seawall dating from about 5000 to 5500 BCE, which was uncovered a few years ago off Israel’s Carmel coast. Like most other defences, it didn’t work in the long run: The village it protected only existed for 100 to 250 years and the wall itself has been submerged for millennia.

Indeed, disaster caused by rising sea levels was commonplace: Witness flood stories like that of Noah and Gilgamesh, which researchers now think reflect real, long-ago events. Nearly always people have had to move away from the lapping waves, the powerful storm surges. The difference now is that the pace of sea level rise has increased significantly. A striking example is found at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. It’s predicted that between now and 2100 its shoreline could experience a rise nearly equivalent to what took place over the past 300 years.

In December, 2010, Sainte-Flavie learned what rising sea levels will mean when a combination of an unusually high tide and a wild winter storm drove a storm surge sweeping on shore. About 70 buildings were damaged in the town of 800 on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence, and several required demolition. As the city and provincial government agencies took stock, it became clear that many more were in danger of being ravaged the next time a truly big storm blew in.

So the province passed enabling legislation allowing no-new-building zones along the coast and regulating what kind of rebuilding could be done within them. In Sainte-Flavie and nearby Sainte-Luce, that meant analyzing a 30-kilometre stretch of shoreline to give each property a vulnerability index. Sainte-Flavie then offered the owners of principal residences at high risk the option of staying put and taking their chances with future tempests, moving their houses to a safer location, or abandoning their house outright and building a new one outside the risk zone. Costs would be covered up to $250,000, paid from the $5.5-million budget the province put up.

When I visited Sainte-Flavie in August, 2021, the sites of several houses that had been condemned were being transformed into a riverside park at the western edge of the town. By then the owners of 20 of the 30 properties considered at risk had accepted the buyout. Several of the remaining houses were still in good condition, though, and the city was reluctant to destroy buildings that might be used by others if moved away from the shore. Therefore 18 months ago it set up an auction to sell the solid houses to private citizens. The starting bid was set at $3,500 and funds collected would reimburse the provincial government for the seed money that started the project.

Ms. Bernier, trained as a dental hygienist, had grown up in Sainte-Flavie, and she and Mr. LePage, a paramedic from suburban Quebec City, were planning to start a market garden on part of the land her family had cultivated for decades. To their delight their bid of $21,000 was the only one on the house they wanted located just across Highway 132 from their farm.

That was just the beginning. Moving the house was expensive and involved permissions from public utilities, the town and the Quebec Ministry of Transport. The move had to be financed by the couple up front since they couldn’t get a mortgage until they actually had the house in place. But the pieces all finally fit together by mid May, 2022, just when they were rushing to get their first crops in the ground.

Radio Canada did a short documentary on the move, which shows crews working through a spring night to raise the house up onto steel beams and then skid it across to its new location. Wisely, it is back some distance from the road. Set-back requirements and technicalities stemming from the height of the water table meant that setting the house very close to the highway wouldn’t work, but the young couple weren’t interested in doing that anyway. At this spot, Highway 132 runs perilously close to the shore so that if – or maybe one should say when – rising sea levels permanently undermine the road and it has to be relocated farther from the shore, the house would still be well away from the highway.

And already there are signs that Highway 132 will face serious problems. Over Christmas weekend in 2022, a stretch near Sainte-Flavie was shut down because of a storm surge associated with another big winter storm. Significantly, the St. Lawrence estuary had not frozen when I talked to Ms. Bernier and Mr. LePage. Up until a few years ago, by mid December, ice along the shore protected it somewhat from surging waves, but climate change seems to have put an end to that.

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The Fortress of Louisbourg is a striking example of dealing with rising sea levels by armouring the shoreline.Megan O'Toole/The Globe and Mail

There are other ways of dealing with rising sea levels, of course. The Fortress of Louisbourg is a striking example of another approach: armouring the shoreline. The fortress is one of the oldest settlements in what is now Canada. Founded by the French in 1713, it passed into English control in 1758. To keep the fortress out of French hands should the balance of power shift back the other way, the British destroyed it in 1760.

Two hundred years later, Parks Canada began an ambitious reconstruction project that restored the fort and part of the surrounding town to what it looked like in 1744. Among the things uncovered during the work were mooring rings on the quay, which indicted that the high tide line in the early 18th century was nearly a metre lower than it is now. The culprit, even then, were rising sea levels due to melting glaciers, although land subsidence also contributed.

But current predictions are that relative sea levels could rise by as much as a metre between now and the end of the 21st century. To counter that threat, between 2017 and 2019, Parks Canada reinforced the barrier island that partly protects the fortress and raised the quay by 1.4 metres. Parks Canada officials say that even though waves that came with post-tropical storm Fiona last fall sent spray flying over the quay, the raised wall and improved drainage did what it was supposed to do.

The shoreline that is unprotected did not fare as well. A particular case is the old cemetery at Rochefort Point south of the reconstructed fortress. There Fiona’s storm surge uncovered the remains of two individuals. It’s not news that waves threaten the cemetery: Bioarcheologists have been carefully uncovering bodies there for several years, according to Mallory Moran, archeologist with Parks Canada. Usually, the work goes on in summer, but after Fiona’s damage became apparent last fall, researchers secured the bones and bundled them off to the University of New Brunswick before winter storms could do more harm.

Protecting the cemetery by building a seawall is not in the cards because it would be so expensive. Indeed, an increasing number of studies indicate that strategic retreat is often a far more cost-effective tactic. The year after the big storm that pushed the folks at Sainte-Flavie toward their retreat from the shore line, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy took a hard look at the dangers of sea level rise across Canada. It found that strategic retreat combined with not allowing new development on land at risk could lower the cumulative cost of flooding due to climate change by up to $6-billion during this century. Studies elsewhere show similar results, even though it’s clear the tactic is harder to employ when the land threatened is more intensely developed than at Sainte-Flavie. But as John Letzig wrote for the World Economic Forum last December, strategic retreat is “an acknowledgement some places can’t be saved.” He added that it can “also be a chance to build more sustainably.”

Sustainability is what Olivia Bernier and Jimmy LePage are striving for in their market garden, of course. So inside their cozy, salvaged house they plan and plant, while the icy waves of the salty estuary break on the shore a safe distance away.

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