Sea Level Rise

Educating Coastal Communities About Sea-level Rise

The ECoAS Project

What Can You Do About Sea-Level Rise?

It's quite clear that sea levels are rising around the globe and that at the local level, sea level amounts can vary from community to community. But the big question is: what can you do about it? The simple answer: you need to plan and adapt. Incorporating sea-level rise into future coastal management practices and adaptation planning is the biggest step and will ultimately cost less in the long run.


    Planning for future sea-level rise is not a 100-metre sprint and is not a solo event.  Think of it more as a 4-person relay race where each person represents a step in the adaptation process:

    1. information gathering
    2. public education and community engagement
    3. selection of adaptation approaches
    4. monitoring and evaluation


    And just like a 4-person relay, the process of adaptation to sea-level rise is a team sport with federal and provincial governments, municipal councillors and planners, and community members each playing an important role.


    In a team sport, members often come together after a race or game to discuss what worked well, what didn’t work, and what can be changed so the team can be more successful the next time around. This is also an important step in the adaptation process as management plans and strategies need to evolve as community priorities change, as our understanding of climate change expands, and as new adaptation options emerge.  This is called an iterative process.

    Sea-level Rise Adaptation Process from British Columbia’s Sea Level Rise Adaptation Primer


    When faced with the impacts of climate change or sea-level rise, we have no choice but to adapt.  Adapting to sea-level rise means implementing techniques to reduce the effects of sea-level rise on coastal communities.  Adapting after impacts have taken place is called reactive adaptation because we are reacting to events. Approaches carried out in this manner are often rushed and end up being costly.  On the other hand, there is planned adaptation where actions are taken before the impacts have taken place.  These adaptation actions are often in the form of management plans, policies, or built infrastructure.

    When it comes to sea-level rise, there are 4 main approaches to adaptation:


    1. Protect – building or maintaining protective structures so the position of the shoreline remains the same. This approach can often create a false sense of security.

    2. Accommodate – managing the way the coast is used to minimize potential human and infrastructure risk. This allows for continual use of the land at risk and could include changes in land-use bylaws and building codes.

    3. Retreat – relocating people and infrastructure away from high-risk coastal areas to areas with lower risk.  This is a planned withdrawal from the coast as opposed to forced retreat.

    4. Avoid – discouraging or preventing new development in areas that are at risk.


    Within each of these approaches a suite of options is available to communities planning for sea-level rise. We say options because there is no rule saying you can only use one approach, and often the best approach is using a combination of options that work well together.


    Tools, Approaches, & Resources

    • Vertical Allowances

      Approach: Vertical allowances are the recommended changes in the elevation of coastal infrastructure in order to maintain the same level of risk under future sea level scenarios.


      Tool: The Canadian Extreme Water Level Adaptation Tool (CAN-EWLAT), developed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), is a tool used to provide vertical allowances for sea-level rise planning in DFO Small Craft Harbours (SCH) on the east and west coasts of Canada.  With 653 Small Craft Harbours in Atlantic Canada alone, there is a very good chance that a SCH is located close to your community.  As relative sea-level rise and vertical allowance values will not vary drastically over short distances, CAN-EWLAT is a great tool for planning for future sea-level rise in your community.


      Contact: Dr. Blair Greenan, Head, Oceanography and Climate Section, Fisheries and Oceans Canada



      How to use CAN-EWLAT

    • Horizontal Setbacks

      Approach: Coastal setbacks typically require that human development or activity be kept a certain distance away from a coastal boundary, such as the high water mark or the edge of a cliff. In this way, horizontal setbacks provide a buffer between the location of your house and the impacts of sea-level rise on the coast, especially erosion. This method of sea-level rise planning ultimately reduces infrastructure damage and public risk. Although horizontal setbacks have not been widely used in Atlantic Canada, communities with land use planning authority are able to create their own setbacks to match the sea-level rise impacts being experienced in their area.

    • Living Shorelines/Shoreline Naturalization

      Approach: Natural coastal systems are always moving. Have you ever noticed that your favourite beach looks different every time you visit; it seems to be rockier in the winter months than it does in the summer months? The interaction between land and sea - where waves, currents and tides move, transport, and redistribute material over the course of hours, days, and years - is a natural occurrence!


      However, when we build hard sea walls, roads, or put rocks along our eroding shoreline we are altering how the coast naturally behaves. This often causes problems for our neighbours and can actually limit the coast's ability to naturally adapt.  From a Canadian perspective, we are more inclined to use engineered, hard protective structures, such as seawalls, bulkheads and dykes to address issues of sea-level rise, erosion, and flooding.  Although this approach may be the only suitable option for coastal environments with really high wave energy, it should not be considered as the "go to" approach when planning for future rising seas. A softer, and often more effective approach that works with the natural movement of the coast is called Living Shorelines.


      Living Shorelines attempt to mimic natural coastal processes, which help a coastline reach a more stable state. This can include stabilizing slopes through planting vegetation and upland forests, maintaining and restoring beaches and marshes, and re-establishing intertidal zones. These methods serve to slow erosion and increase protection from flooding. The chosen approach depends on the site, costs, and property owners' goals and preferences.


      Tool: Ecology Action Centre’s Living Shoreline Toolkit


      The Ecology Action Centre has been at the forefront of providing living shorelines information to communities in Nova Scotia and has developed a living shorelines toolkit to help property owners and professionals apply living shoreline principles and approaches in Atlantic Canada.

      Contact: Samantha Page, Coastal Adaptation Coordinator



      Resource: Helping Nature Heal is an ecological landscaping company that has adapted the Living Shoreline approach to Nova Scotia's unique coastal ecosystems. They have worked on many Living Shoreline projects across the province.


      Contact: Rosmarie Lohnes, Designer/President



      Ecosystem services are the many benefits that result from healthy ecosystems. A healthy ecosystem not only provides food, fresh water, raw material, medical resources, and habitat for species but can also help regulate air quality, store carbon, improve water quality, prevent erosion, and moderate extreme storm events along the coast. Ecosystems can also provide cultural services; aesthetic beauty, spiritual experiences, and a place for local recreation and tourism.


    • Coastal Policies and Strategies

      Approach: Coastal policies are a great tool to provide leadership and best practices when it comes to managing the coast. Each province has their own needs when it comes to supporting sustainable coastal development and protecting coastal ecosystems through policies and strategies. This largely depends on the major sea-level rise impacts they are facing and the distribution of land use planning authority in the province. Some provinces set provincial standards, some combine provincial and municipal strategies, and others place the responsibility in the hands of municipalities.


      Newfoundland and Labrador is the only Atlantic Province that has set a province wide high water design standard for sea-level rise, storm surge, and wave action in coastal areas (it is set for a 1:100 year return period). In Prince Edward Island, municipalities with official planning strategies and by-laws are responsible for managing coastal development in their areas and the remaining areas follow provincial laws, managed by the PEI Department of Communities, Land and Environment.  The Province of Nova Scotia has delegated land use and zoning powers to the municipalities through the Municipal Government Act and the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter. Allowing the municipalities to have authority to develop their own planning strategies and bylaws was designed to foster local governance. Despite these efforts, the majority of Nova Scotia's provincial land does not have comprehensive municipal plans or land use by-laws related to the coast; development continues along the coast with little to no regulations in place. In New Brunswick, the Sustainable Planning Branch of the Department of Environment uses a tiered approach to coastal land management with coastal land immediately adjacent to the shore being available for water-dependent activities only, and each move landward has a zone with less stringent restrictions.


      Policy work is ongoing and needs to be revisited on a regular basis to incorporate the newest adaptation options and sea-level rise data.


      A strategy is a flexible game plan chosen from several plans to accomplish specific goals. It is a plan of action. A policy is a set of fixed common rules and regulations, which form the basis of day-to-day decisions. A policy is the principles of actions. Both policy and strategy can be used effectively to help plan and make decisions concerning the use and management of land along the coast.


      A strategy is a flexible game plan chosen from several plans to accomplish specific goals. It is a plan of action. A policy is a set of fixed common rules and regulations, which form the basis of day-to-day decisions. A policy is the principles of actions. Both policy and strategy can be used effectively to help plan and make decisions concerning the use and management of land along the coast. NEW BRUNSWICKNEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADORNOVA SCOTIA (Nova Scotia does not currently have a coastal policy or strategy)PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND


    • Coastal Buffers

      Approach: Coastal buffers are essentially horizontal setbacks with trees, bushes, and plants. Coastal buffers retain and restore natural vegetation along the coastline to create a natural transition zone between the shoreline and human development. Coastal buffer zones differ from general setbacks which establish a mandatory distance between the shoreline and human development but do not actively seek to restore natural vegetation or prohibit removing vegetation within a certain distance from the coast. Coastal buffers therefore establish a mutually beneficial relationship between the ecosystem and human development, provide protection from flooding and erosion while simultaneously restoring coastal habitat, and enhancing water quality. Buffers are commonly used along the shores of streams and lakes and can be applied to coasts.


      Resource: Prince Edward Island uses coastal buffers along their coast.
      Check out their coastal property guide.

    • Guidance for Coastal Flooding and Erosion Adaptation

      Natural Resources Canada funding has enabled the development of the Atlantic Climate Adaptation Solutions Association Coastal Flooding and Erosion Decision Support Tool. This collaborative web-based tool was developed to help Atlantic rural coastal communities plan for the effects of climate change. The tool informs coastal decision makers in the following ways:


      • A decision tree that allows you to answer questions related to your specific flooding and erosion issues in order to provide a variety of adaptation options that may be suitable for your situation.
      • A community profile that allows you to answer questions related to your community's strengths and provides you with approaches for improving your community’s capacity to address the impacts of climate change
      • A 3-part Guidance Document that provides details of adaptation options that can be used within Atlantic Canada to address climate change and how to select the most appropriate ones for your coastal situation.
      • A climate change coastal primer that provides a summary of climate change issues related to Atlantic Canada.


      Tool: Guidance for Coastal Flooding and Erosion Adaptation

      Contact: Don Jardine, Project Manager, UPEI Climate Lab


    • Visualizations

      Approach: Wouldn't it be great to be able to visualize which parts of your coastal properties and which community assets will be at risk as sea levels rise? Visualizations are powerful tools that help people emotionally relate to the impacts of sea-level rise and hopefully lead to behavioural change and the desire to plan.


      Tool: CLIVE (Coastal Impacts Visualization Environment) developed jointly by UPEI's Climate Research Lab and the Spatial Interface Lab at Simon Fraser University is a sea-level rise and coastal erosion video game that allows users to raise and lower sea levels as they fly over Prince Edward Island.  Users can also turn on and off different coastal layers that show areas of risk and vulnerability.


      Tool: CLIVE

      Contact: Adam Fenech, UPEI Climate Lab Director



    This website is for informational purposes only – to educate communities and decision-makers about sea-level rise, make them aware of the need to incorporate sea-level rise into planning strategies, and showcase tools developed to assist with this. It is not meant as a stand-alone planning tool. Individual tools have disclaimers and terms of use on their respective websites and it is recommended that these are understood before implementing any adaptation approaches.

The ECoAS Project

project partners:

Ecology Action Centre Fisheries and Oceans Canada

© 2018