Major coastal erosion study now completed

  • Dec. 19, 2007 9:00 a.m.

By Alex Rinfret–The islands communities show surprising strengths as well as vulnerabilities when it comes to dealing with our eroding coastline, says a UVic geography professor who has just completed a three-year study of the topic. Dr. Ian Walker and his associates held several workshops here as part of the study and went door-to-door to 243 homes, talking to islanders about their attitude towards the rising sea level, how prepared they are for emergencies, and what they see as their communities’ strengths and weaknesses. Dr. Walker said what the researchers found here can be applied to remote coastal communities all over Canada, which are also dealing with sea level rises brought about by climate change. “Haida Gwaii is already resilient to dealing with natural hazards in many ways,” Dr. Walker told the Observer. Because we experience frequent power failures and supply shortages due to ferry delays, many of us have large quantities of stored food, have candles and flashlights on hand, know who are neighbours are and whether they are likely to need help, and just generally know how to make do.However, the study also found clear vulnerabilities, Dr. Walker said. For example, more than half of the islanders surveyed by researchers – they spoke to people living in Old Massett, Masset, Tow Hill Road and Tlell – told him that their households do not have a plan for what to do in an emergency, and many said they weren’t sure if their community has an emergency plan, or what the plan calls for. Another vulnerability is that while many households are prepared for short-term power outages and supply shortages, most are not prepared to deal with a longer-term emergency. Only about one in five homes has a generator, most do not have water for more than a few days, and many islanders do not have property insurance. “While community emergency planning was reported as important, relatively few respondents were aware of such plans (e.g. tsunami evacuation) and many felt that practising such plans was not necessarily important,” Dr. Walker’s report states. “At the household level, few respondents indicated that they had a household plan to deal with emergencies such as fire, earthquake or tsunami. This suggests there is much room for the improvement of emergency preparedness and response plans at both the household and community levels.” The study notes that two events, the Christmas Eve storm that hit here a few years ago, and the 2004 Asian tsunami, have increased awareness about risks, at both the community and government levels. However, more work needs to be done, especially about educating both islanders and government agencies about how longer-term climate change will affect Haida Gwaii.In many ways, climate change and its effects are just “not on the radar” when it comes to planning projects, he said. His report talks specifically about the new Masset hospital, which is being built in a low-lying area vulnerable to flooding in an extreme event. It’s obvious that the site is a good one for many other reasons that were important to the communities when they chose it, Dr. Walker said, but it also serves as an example of how the potential for erosion is often not taken into account.Other pieces of infrastructure were built at a time when people didn’t realize how quickly erosion would occur, he said. The Masset harbour, parts of Old Massett and sections of Highway 16 were designed and built to withstand the highest tide of the day, but they could be submerged within the next few decades, according to his report.The report also outlines three possible future sea-level rise scenarios for the Masset Inlet region, with detailed maps, produced by Haida Mapping, showing where the water could be in 2020, 2050, 2080 and 2100. Only a slight rise in sea level would be required to compromise the secondary roads out of Masset and Old Massett, the report says. These are important transportation and evacuation routes, and this requires attention and planning. An extreme high surge event, similar to what Tlell experienced in the December 2003 storm, could cause significant flooding in Masset and Old Massett. Although the chances of this happening are slim, it is possible.”For such an event, all low-lying areas and dozens of properties in Old Massett would be flooded, particularly those nearest the coast, including the Fire Hall,” the report says. “Most of the coastal road, including the entry and lower level of the proposed new hospital, would flood as well. Many coastal properties in Masset would be inundated, including the marina land and most properties on both sides of Masset Harbour.”Also threatened in this scenario are Delkatla village, low-lying parts of Highway 16, and the runway at the Masset airport.Just as vulnerable is the entire east coast of Graham Island, one of the most dynamic shorelines in the country. Partly because it’s sandy and partly because of the harsh weather we are exposed to here from shallow and stormy Hecate Strait, this coastline has been eroding for thousands of years, but the pace of erosion is now increasing.”In 10 years, we may find ourselves with no Highway 16,” Dr. Walker said. The coastal erosion we are experiencing here is part of a longer-term and global issue of climate change. Sections of the report put what is happening here on Haida Gwaii in the context of what is occurring around the world. Dr. Walker is now working on a national assessment report on impacts and adaptations to climate change across Canada, helping to write the BC chapter.Dr. Walker has sent copies of his report to the Masset and Old Massett village offices, the Council of the Haida Nation, and the Tow Hill Road committee. He said he’s willing to get involved with any local organizations and provide more information.This year’s October and November high tides did not coincide with high winds, so we haven’t yet seen a major storm event this year. However, the October high tides did breach dune systems in Old Massett, even without a storm, and Dr. Walker warns that it’s only a matter of time before weather and tides coincide to create a problem.”Like Christmas Eve 2003, the right combination can cause a lot of damage,” he said. Even during the Christmas Eve storm – which the report calls a one in 100 year event, and which destroyed a lot of coastline and shut down the highway – the point of the peak storm surge occurred at low tide, rather than high tide. Had the surge happened at high tide, the damage could have been far worse.If you are interested in reading the full 238-page report, you can download it from Dr. Walker’s website at