Rising sea levels threaten highway, researcher says

  • Feb. 23, 2004 9:00 a.m.

Within 100 years, the highway along the east coast of Graham Island will probably no longer exist, says a geography professor from the University of Victoria who is studying coastal erosion here.
The highway is already extremely close to the beach in several places, and the Dec. 24 storm tore out another four to five metres of coastline. Dr. Ian Walker, who spoke Thursday night at the United Church annex in Queen Charlotte, showed slides of spots along the road where the shoulder appears to be only a few feet wide.
The highway and the communities along it are threatened both by ongoing coastal erosion (an average of one to three metres a year is washed away from the east coast of Graham Island), and by rising sea levels, a world-wide phenomenon caused by the warming climate, Dr. Walker said.
On the east coast of the Charlottes, Dr. Walker predicts the sea level will rise by 11 to 24 centimetres in the next century. That may not sound like a lot, but in low-lying areas, 24 centimetres of extra ocean could go quite far inland.
The ocean level has been rising and falling over time. Work done by Parks Canada archeologist Daryl Fedje here shows that thousands of years ago, the sea level used to be much lower than it is now. It then started rising, reaching a point higher than the current one around 9,400 years ago. From then it fell gradually until very recently, but it is now rising again.
Extreme events like the Dec. 24 storm may become more common as the climate warms, he said.
And Dr. Walker warned that the rip rap protection now being rebuilt by the Ministry of Highways is a short-term solution at best.
“It serves a function, but not very well and it’s not a long-term fix,” he said. “This is useless over 100 years… I don’t see this as being a sustainable road for that time.”
Dr. Walker also spoke about his ongoing research project here, illustrating his talk with storm and post-storm photos taken by locals like Janet Brown and Mavis Mark.
The east coast of Graham Island, especially the northern part near Rose Spit, has been identified as one of Canada’s most “sensitive” coasts, he said. That means it is undergoing relatively rapid change, something which affects people as well as the land itself. The ongoing erosion can affect tourism, fisheries and cultural sites – to name just a few. Part of Dr. Walker’s research will examine more closely at the impacts on the people living here, and how we can adjust to them.
He’s been looking at water level measurements taken at the Queen Charlotte dock since 1940. These measurements show extremely high water was recorded in 1983, 1992 and 1997 (as well as during the 2003 storm). All these years correspond with El Nino – a warming ocean current. He is particularly interested in stories and pictures of weather-related events from these high-water years. He’s also interested in stories and pictures of the coastal erosion.
He and his research team will be back to spend part of the spring and summer on the islands. One of the things they’ll be doing is developing a questionnaire with input from locals, and they will also be hiring two university-level students to help with the project for the summer.
“We’re here to work in the community,” he said. “We want to hear more from you.”
You can reach him by e-mail at ijwalker@uvic.ca