People at the tidal flats 3: A Quick Wrap Up

In the last post we discussed projected changes in Iqaluit’s environment from atmospheric warming, and some of the effects this is expected to have on the coastal landscape. Now we’re going to talk about some of the implications this has for the future, and for more work in the ongoing effort to adapt to climate change in Iqaluit.

We’ve seen that limited risk is projected for coastal infrastructure on Iqaluit’s coast. There is, however, elements of the shoreline that suggest hazards from flooding, wave runup, and sea-ice impacts. When we mapped the elevations of the coastal building we found that most municipal buildings sit above previous high water levels, whereas the subsistence infrastructure (fishing sheds on the beach) sometimes dip below past recorded high water levels. This is evident in the stories from previous flooding – it was these buildings that were flooded. The high water level story that persists in other parts of the country from storm surges and sea-level rise is, in Iqaluit, only part of the story. The influence of the tidal flats and the sea-ice on the coast presents a different picture of hazards for a coastal community under projected climate change.

Our observations suggest that the hazard from sea-ice pile-up and ride-up is dependent on how the ice freezes up in the fall. This is when the ice establishes an icefoot for the year and assembles itself for the season – it ‘sets up’. This icefoot, when established on the low slope tidal flats, provides a nice buffer for the coastal infrastructure. In 2011, when we were watching it, it established itself about 20-25 ft offshore of the fishing sheds.

Our current best guess at sea-level change in Iqaluit is a rise between 0 and 70 cm from 2010 to 2100 (*link to James*). More recent analysis suggests this could be even lower for a number of reasons. We’ve also argued that the tidal flats are important for their role in protection against incoming waves and from sea-ice incursion onto the beach. Lastly, we’ve seen no evidence for significant erosion over a three year timespan. The hazards in Iqaluit differ greatly from many other coastal communities around Canada that face worsening storm surges, rapidly rising sea-levels, and an increase in erosion from a decrease in protective sea-ice cover.

The complication imposed by the coastal infrastructure, however, suggests that the story of hazards and vulnerability are connected but distinct. We’ve outlined reasons why we perceive exposure to hazards as being low here. But the nature of coastal infrastructure and its use by inhabitants of Iqaluit suggests that the story of vulnerability is one that requires further thought. In some ways the limited risk from typical hazards (rapid sea-level rise, rapid erosion, etc.) suggests a lack of vulnerability. It is important to remember, however, that there is a fundamental difference between exposure and vulnerability. In fact, a prolonged period of low exposure, such as on Iqaluit’s coast, often increases vulnerability. The lack of significant flooding from storms and lack of significant damage from sea-ice means that infrastructure has been allowed to be established very close to the high water mark. In a situation with low exposure, smaller perturbations can present greater relative vulnerabilities than in a place that is used to storm flooding. Because of this, the procedure of managing and caring for the critical fishing infrastructure on Iqaluit’s coast should be paramount in any further coastal adaptation discussions.

High spring tide in November of 2011. Sea water, unable to float the sea-ice stuck to the ground, pushed right overtop and made it to the doorstep of this fishing shed.

High spring tide in November of 2011. Sea water, unable to float the sea-ice stuck to the ground, pushed right overtop and made it to the doorstep of this fishing shed.

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