Such Quantities of Sand! Storm Surges and Coastal Change on Prince Edward Island

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The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “it would be grand!”1

– Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”

Residents of Prince Edward Island likewise wept to see such quantities of sand swept out to sea by Hurricane2 Fiona on September 24, 2022. The Category 2 post-tropical storm recorded winds peaking at 141kph on the north shore, knocking out 95% of the electricity grid across the province, with extended effects to communication towers and fuel depots. As Islanders waited for electricity and cellular coverage to be restored, the rest of the world started to see the damage. The COASTIE cameras established by the University of Windsor Coastal Research Group at Brackley Beach had recorded dramatic coastal change; a conservative estimate is that storm surges had washed 40 percent of the volume of the sand out to sea. Crops, barns, and boats suffered extensive damage, and despite the advance warning and a protective stone seawall, everything at Red Head Harbour on St. Peters Bay was deemed unusable.


For me, it was a timely reminder of the dynamic nature of the Island’s coastline and the protection provided to human property and wildlife habitat by the sand dunes. As a seasonal resident of St. Peters Harbour, only a few kilometres from Red Head Harbour on PEI’s north shore, I had become fascinated with the ever-shifting shorelines and was just in the process of narrowing my Master’s research focus to the resilience of Prince Edward Island’s coastal ecosystems. Despite dealing with downed trees, lost shingles, and no electricity in Charlottetown, I was anxious to see the effects of the wind and storm surge to the beach at St. Peters Harbour. 

Annotated Google Maps view of the north shore at St Peters Harbour.

Approaching the beach from the south side of the dunes revealed little change: the large dunes had protected our cottage community well. But on the other side of the dunes, on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the path ended abruptly. Our beach revealed damages equivalent to those recorded at Brackley Beach, with an estimated 40% of the volume of the larger dunes sheared away, and many of the shorter dunes washed over. But the landmark St. Peters Harbour lighthouse was unscathed, and in the distance, the large parabolic dunes of the Greenwich sector of PEI National Park were still visible.

The beach at St. Peters Harbour, September 29, 2022. Personal photo.

The sand dunes on the north shore of PEI may have survived Fiona, but how long will they survive and continue to buffer property and wildlife habitat from wind and storm surges, in the era of a rapidly changing climate? Significant attention has been paid to the vulnerability of low-lying islands, including Prince Edward Island, to sea-level rise and gradual erosion, but only now are we beginning to wake up to the increasing risk of severe events.3


Changing Coastlines

Sands have been shifting at St. Peters Harbour for as long as there have been records. The first British surveys of the area in 1765 and 1775 recorded a sand bar sheltering a pond, and a century later, Meacham’s Atlas showed a lighthouse at the end of a “Sandy Beach”.4  In St. Peters Harbour’s heyday as a fishing harbour, the lighthouse stood on a flat beach with an open channel to the east.

Fiona only missed being a “hundred-year storm” by one year, almost 99 years after the arrival of an equivalent Category 2 storm, on October 1, 1923. This storm system5 reached maximum wind speeds of 158 kph at the centre when it similarly passed to the east of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, also bringing down trees and wires, destroying crops, barns and bridges, and, more significant to the era, washing out the railroad in several places along nearby St. Peters Bay.6 But beyond the reported wreckage of several lobster factories and the Tracadie Lighthouse, there was little reporting of consequences to and along the north shore. In his recent Active History post, Alan MacEachern notes that after the 1923 storm, coastal change “was not worthy of mention, or perhaps notice.”

But Island residents had different concerns 99 years ago, fishing from the sea but avoiding it otherwise, and only noticing the changes to the coast when it created problems for the fishing boats and harbours. Those who lived off the land and sea turned their houses away from the sea and retreated inland once fishing season had passed.7 One fishing family who found themselves stuck at St. Peters Harbour while waiting for new accommodations faced a harrowing night: the MacDonalds, living temporarily in the harbour cookhouse with Captain Geldert, were almost swept out to sea. After being rescued in the middle of the night, they returned to find their possessions strewn about the beach and to find all the boats sunk “with only their masts and parts of the sails sticking out of the water.”8 The wharves at St. Peters Harbour had also been destroyed, and a replacement would not be built for another ten years.9 Locals were much more concerned about the impact on their lives and livelihoods than any perceived changes to the coast.

Cutting of newspaper article by Marion Boyd, of the reminiscences of Mary MacDonald, circa 1973.
Provided courtesy of the St. Peters Harbour Lighthouse Society, Danny Geldert Collection.

Another marker of the severity of the 1923 storm can be found at Greenwich, on the other side of St. Peters Bay. Researchers examining aerial photo surveys concluded that the sand dunes along the Greenwich shore had been subject to a massive overwash prior to the first aerial survey in 1935, almost certainly from the 1923 storm. The researchers theorized that the dunes may have been weakened in previous decades by farming and grazing cattle. The Greenwich dunes would take nearly fifty years to rebuild, and would only become stable with the creation of the National Park in 1996 and limitations on foot – and hoof – traffic.10

Changing Expectations

Although the sands have been constantly shifting and many of the dunes along the north shore have developed relatively recently, what has changed is public expectation that the shoreline remain static. Stable dune systems provide society with significant ecosystem services in the protection of property, as well as providing sites for tourism, recreation, and aesthetic pursuits. 

There is also increasing awareness of the role of coastal dune systems in the protection of habitat and maintenance of local biodiversity: the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) now maintains several nature reserves along the north shore, including two donations at St. Peters Harbour. The NCC has witnessed rapid change to their properties, having to remove a sign erected in 2012 only five years later in 2017 as it was swallowed by the dune. Hurricane Fiona re-exposed the signposts, now 8m from the remaining dune.

At St. Peters Harbour and Greenwich on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, sand dunes effectively protected both built structures and natural habitat during a severe weather event with catastrophic winds and storm surges. But if we humans have become more aware of the value of these dune systems, and more concerned about our vulnerability in the face of severe weather events, we also need to be more cognizant of what it takes to preserve and maintain these delicate ecosystems in the face of ongoing human-induced changes. Or they may just take care of themselves.

The Future of the Coast

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”11

Even if not “boiling hot”, warming waters are reducing sea ice protection and contributing to increased strength of Atlantic hurricanes. A lack of winter sea ice had already led to a loss of 2-3m of dunes along the Island’s north coast in the winter of 2022, and Fiona exacerbated the loss further, taking every opportunity where the dunes had previously been weakened.

The Island’s shorelines have a long-documented history of changing with the natural forces of tide and storm, but those changes are accelerating due to human influence. My nascent research question had been “how can we build resilience in Prince Edward Island’s coastal ecosystems?” Now it seems as though my focus should be on how we can re-build their resilience. But can we do it in time? The next “Storm of the Century” will not be a century away.


Many thanks to Josh MacFadyen, Alan MacEachern, and Claire Campbell for their encouragement and support in developing this piece.


Notes

1. Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (London: MacMillan, 1872), 73.
2. Technically, a post-tropical storm, but Fiona will always be considered a hurricane to Islanders.
3. Government of Prince Edward Island, PEI Coastal Hazards Information Platform (CHIP),  https://www.princeedwardisland.ca/en/information/environment-energy-and-climate-action/coastal-hazards-information-platform-chip; University of Prince Edward Island, CoastaL Impacts Visualization Environment (CLIVE) https://projects.upei.ca/climate/clive/; Saltwire (August 2022), https://www.saltwire.com/atlantic-canada/news/a-quarter-of-peis-lighthouses-at-serious-risk-due-to-increased-coastal-erosion-100764762.
4. For further details on the history of St. Peters Harbour, refer to my previous NiCHE post: https://niche-canada.org/2022/07/05/the-disappearing-harbour-navigating-the-environmental-history-of-st-peters-harbour-prince-edward-island/.
5. Environment Canada records list the October 1923 storm as “Storm #2” (https://web.archive.org/web/20130313113539/http://www.ec.gc.ca/hurricane/default.asp?lang=En&n=B527235D-1), but NOAA records categorized it as “Hurricane Five” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1923_Atlantic_hurricane_season).  Locals simply referred to it as “The October Gale” or “The Big Storm”.
6. The Charlottetown Guardian, October 3, 1923, pp. 1-3 https://islandnewspapers.ca/islandora/object/guardian%3A19231003-001
7. John Gillis, “Muddying the Waters of Environmental History: Islands as Ecotones” in Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island, eds. Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen and Irené Novaczek (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 23.
8. Fran (MacDonald) Griffith, “The Big Storm”, 1985. Full copy provided courtesy of the St. Peters Harbour Lighthouse Society, https://www.stpetersharbourlighthouse.com/.
9. A sketch provided to local residents and retained by the St. Peters Harbour Lighthouse Society shows plans for a new wharf in 1931 and the wharf was in place by 1935.  The piers of this wharf still stand today, in the protection of the new sand dunes.
10. Sojan Mathew, Robin G.D. Davidson-Arnott & Jeff Ollerhead, 2010. “Evolution of a beach-dune system following a catastrophic storm overwash event: Greenwich Dunes, Prince Edward Island, 1936-2005. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 47, 273-290.
11. Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 75-6.


Feature Image: The north shore of Prince Edward Island, east from Lakeside to Greenwich, as viewed from Crowbush Cove Golf Resort on October 3, 2022. Photo by Barbara Rousseau.
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Graduate student in the Master of Arts in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, following completion of the Bachelor of Integrated Studies, concentration in Environmental Studies, in May 2022. Prior to moving to Prince Edward Island in 2020, I worked in software project management and quality assurance in the Ottawa area.

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