Published On: June 2022

The content of this Situation Report was written by:

  • Charmaine White, Food and Agriculture Institute, University of the Fraser Valley
  • Robert Newell, Royal Roads University & Food and Agriculture Institute, University of the Fraser Valley

Prince Edward Island is a small densely-populated island with 3,200 km of coastline, and as such, it is highly vulnerable to water challenges related to climate change, primarily sea level rise, coastal erosion, and storm surges that result in flooding (Government of Prince Edward Island [GPEI], 2018). The island is made of primarily sand and sandstone leaving it especially vulnerable to coastal erosion, and the island land area has already decreased by a net 2,000 hectares over the last half century (University of Prince Edward Island, 2014). Prince Edward Island (PEI) is the most densely-populated province of Canada, with 25.1 persons per square kilometre (Statistics Canada, 2017), and over the next hundred years, it will face approximately 1 m of sea level rise putting its residents’ homes, coastal infrastructure, and cultural heritage resources, such as historical lighthouses in danger (UPEI, 2014).

Regional Description

Communities and culture – Municipalities and Indigenous communities. PEI is by far the smallest province in Canada. Located on the East Coast in Atlantic Canada, this small island province covers 5,660 km² and is the traditional and ancestral lands of Mi’kma’ki and the Mi’kmaq people. PEI is in the traditional territory of the Wabanaki people (which includes the Mi’Kmaq Nation). Prior to European contact, the Wabanaki people lived and governed the Mi’kma’ki region, an area that encompasses Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Gaspé Peninsula, and the majority of New Brunswick (Native Land, 2021). As per 2020 estimates, the population of PEI is around 160,000 people, with approximately half this population living in the metropolitan area of the province’s capital and largest city, Charlottetown (Statistics Canada, 2021).

Climate. PEI is in the Atlantic Maritime ecozone, the warmest ecozone in Atlantic Canada. Of all the maritime provinces, PEI receives the strongest ‘Maritime effect’, that is, the effect of ocean airflow on local climate. Surrounded by the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence PEI experiences mild summers and winters, with summer temperatures ranging (respectively) from 20°C to 34°C, and -3 °C to -11 °C in the winter; however, being an island, it is windy year round, and during the winter, temperatures can feel as low as -25 °C with the windchill (Natural Resources Canada, 2019).

Future climate predictions indicate temperatures are expected to be (on average) 1.6 °C warmer by the 2050s, and the surrounding Gulf of St. Lawrence is expected to be almost completely ice free by 2100 (GPEI, 2021). The island receives an average of 890 mm of rain and 290 cm of snow (GPEI, 2015). It is predicted that there will be an increase in heavy rain and decrease in snowfall on days with precipitation, but the overall average precipitation will decrease by 6% during the 2020s (GPEI, 2018). This means PEI will experience more intense rainfall, but longer dry periods with increased drought conditions between rainfall events.

Ecology. PEI is predominantly flat with gentle rolling elevations reaching a maximum of 142 metres above sea level (Nature Conservancy of Canada [NCC], 2019). PEI is located within the Northern Appalachian/Acadian ecoregion, and it contains floodplains, eelgrass beds, coastal estuaries, salt marshes, and tidal flats, which are important habitats in particular for shorebirds and seabirds. There are approximately 250 small subwatersheds in this ecoregion, including the river systems of Vernon, Seal, Trout and Mill, with small tributaries many ending in estuaries (NCC, 2019). WIth 24,848 hectares or 4.4% of PEI’s land base currently protected, a target was set to increase the total protected land to 7% by the end of 2020 (Government of Canada [GOC], 2021). Black Pond Migratory Bird Sanctuary is one 130-hectare protected site on PEI, and is comprised of primarily sand dunes and open water and marsh, spruce forest, open fields, and beach (Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2019). Black Pond is a sanctuary for migratory birds and other wildlife including the Piping plover, a shorebird listed as endangered under the Government of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) due to human disturbance and habitat loss/degradation (GOC, 2011).

PEI’s history of settlement and land clearing has contributed to the loss of biodiversity (GOC, 2021). Such changes affect coastal ecosystems, which are further compromised by the fact that PEI does not have a biodiversity strategy. Developing a biodiversity strategy is complicated in PEI due to 90% of the province’s land base being privately owned. Land use/type figures for PEI in 2010 indicate that the land base consists/consisted of 44% forest, 38% agriculture, 7% built environment (urban, recreational, residential and transportation infrastructure), 7% sand dunes and wetlands, and 4% abandoned agriculture (GOC, 2021).

Economy. Agriculture, fisheries, and tourism are mainstays in PEI’s economy. Agriculture contributed a record high of $606.3 million in farm receipts in 2020 (GPEI, 2021). Fisheries, in particular lobster, contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the island’s economy, with exports playing an economically significant role in the industry (GPEI, 2021). In 2019, PEI fisheries employed approximately 8,000 people, and its value to the 2 provincial economy exceeded $590 million (GPEI, 2019). Tourism is also important to PEI’s economy, as the province receives over 1.5 million visitors each year (GPEI, 2021), which was made easier by the 12.9 km Confederation Bridge that joins PEI to the New Brunswick mainland. It is the longest bridge over ice-covered waters in the world (GPEI, 2015). Other sectors of note that have more recently comprised a part of PEI’s economy include bioscience, advanced manufacturing (GPEI, 2021), renewable energy, aerospace, and information and communications technology (GOC, 2021).

Potential and existing disruptions to regional water security

Along with hundreds of other Canadian municipalities, the City of Charlottetown declared a Climate Emergency in 2019 (City of Charlottetown, n.d.). In 2017, the University of Prince Edward Island released a report entitled Prince Edward Island Climate Change Adaptation Recommendations Report. The report studies the impacts of climate change on ten sectors across the Island (Agriculture, Education and Outreach, Energy, Fish and Aquaculture, Forestry and Biodiversity, Insurance, Properties and Infrastructure, Public Health and Safety, Tourism, and Water) focusing solely on climate change adaptation, and recommends 97 adaptation actions to address climate change impacts (Arnold & Fenech, 2017). The report identifies sectoral impacts from climate change, and the water sector is included, with impacts relating to warming temperatures, increases in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, and rising sea levels associated with climate change (Arnold & Fenech, 2017). Examples of how climate change will impact the water sector in PEI include increasing demand on stormwater management infrastructure, increasing the risk of wastewater treatment overflows, diminishing water quality, damaging water infrastructure and equipment, and increasing the risk of saltwater intrusion of drinking wells (Arnold & Fenech, 2017).

PEI is vulnerable to saltwater intrusion and other effects of sea level rise, as most places in the province are no more than 16 km from the coast (Sea Level Rise [SLR], 2018; Prince Edward Island Department of Environment, Labour and Justice [DELJ], 2011). The polluting of aquifers with saltwater will impact freshwater resources and as saltwater infiltrates aquifers, well contamination occurs (DELJ, 2011), impacting drinking water and human health and well-being.

Coastal erosion causes the shoreline to recede and the saltwater-freshwater interface to move further inland. This inward migration of the coastline and flooding of land with seawater will lead to loss of coastal vegetation. In addition, infiltration of saltwater into freshwater systems will impact freshwater ecosystems and the species that live in these habitats.

The Government of PEI’s Department of Environment, Water and Climate Change developed an overview document of the water quality on a watershed basis in PEI. The document includes PEI Water Quality Report Cards, most recently published in 2020, and includes data current to the end of 2017. These report cards give Islanders a general sense of the health of watersheds across the Island (PEI Department of Environment, Water and Climate Change [EWCC], 2020). The Trout River/Foxley River ( 101.0 km²), Mill River (135.7 km²), Southwest River (73.3 km²), and Kildare River/Montrose River (56.3 km²) watershed’s all ranked as the poorest water quality among the watersheds in PEI, with primary land use in these watersheds listing both forestry and agriculture (EWCC, 2020). Other water quality concerns include anoxic conditions in the watercourses due to nutrient pollution and eutrophication that commonly occur during the summer months in winter estuaries; 10 3 anoxic events were recorded in estuaries in 2021 (Province of Prince Edward Island [GPEI], 2021). Among the watersheds with excellent water quality were the Enmore River (48.8 km2), Percival Bay (48.8 km2), Bear River (17.3 km2), and St. Chrysostome/Barachois Run (10.5 km2) watersheds, with their primarily land use listed as forestry (EWCC, 2020).

The development and activities of the major economic sectors in PEI also face potential and existing disruptions to their water security. For example, agriculture, one of PEI’s largest economic contributors, will likely be impacted by climate change. In Prince Edward Island Climate Change Adaptation Recommendations Report the report focuses on adaptation rather than mitigation, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of how warmer temperatures will impact PEI agriculture (Arnold & Fenech, 2017). Warmer temperatures could benefit the agricultural sector of PEI by extending the growing season and enabling diversification of plantings of profitable crops that thrive in warmer temperatures. However, climate change will likely also impact the agricultural sector through changes in precipitation patterns that result in increasing bank erosion and runoff and increases in water requirement for crops during a drought (Arnold & Fenech, 2017). Climate change will affect the fish and aquaculture sector of PEI as well, with the adverse impacts far outweigh any potential benefits of climate change, these impacts being including disruptions to regional water security from rising sea levels, more intense and frequent extreme weather events damaging fisheries/aquaculture equipment and infrastructure, and increases in sediment and contaminants in water bodies (Arnold & Fenech, 2017).

Current initiatives and efforts

Installing Intertidal Reefs is a pilot project, lead by the PEI government. Two sandstone reefs were installed along the Souris causeway in PEI designed to protect PEI’s shoreline from worsening storm surges due to climate change. The reefs provide a barrier between the waves and the beach lessening the impacts of waves on the beach and dunes that lead to erosion. The reefs also create a calmer water on the landward side of the reef, causing an accumulation of sand which over time can actually extend the beach.

Coastal Impact Visualization Environment (CLIVE) is an analytical geo-visualization tool created by researchers at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Climate Research Lab and Simon Fraser University’s Spatial Interface Research Lab. The tool uses 3D game engine technology to allow users to interact and manipulate the scenarios exploring realistic impacts from sea level rise as a result of climate change.

PEI Watershed Alliance is a non-profit cooperative association of approximately 24 community-based watershed management groups on Prince Edward Island. The province’s Watershed Management Fund provides financial support to management groups funding their numerous projects from community-based outreach, research and projects that enhance and address watershed-related challenges.

Canadian Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation to be completed in late 2021, is a facility in proximity to wetlands, forests and coastal habitats, that will house the UPEI School of Climate Change and Adaptation, the UPEI Climate Lab, and research centres. The governments of Canada and Prince Edward Island are investing over $9.7 million, and UPEI is contributing over $4.8 million to the project.

The Water Act was implemented by the Government of Prince Edward Island on June 16, 2021, allowing the government to manage how water is extracted and protected for use on the Island.

Wind Institute of Canada (WEICAN) is located in North Cape, PEI. WEICAN is a not-for-profit focusing on advancing the development of wind energy across Canada through research, testing, innovation and collaboration.

Atlantic Climate Adaptation Solutions Association (ACASA) is a partnership among the Atlantic provinces provincial governments and regional stakeholders including nonprofits, tribal governments, and industry. ACASA’s websites provides access to their projects, publications, and other research outputs that help Atlantic Canadians better prepare for, and adapt to, climate change.

Future Outlook

Local imperatives

The Government of PEI released A Climate Change Action Plan for Prince Edward Island 2018-2023, which includes a two-pronged approach focused on both adaptation, reducing or adjusting to the impacts of climate change, and mitigation, decreasing GHG emissions and increasing carbon sequestration and storage (GPEI, 2018).

The following five main action areas of the action plan highlight what the province has identified as the most important action items to address over this 5 year plan. Below are the five main action items, and examples of new actions the PEI government will take, as they relate to the most common water challenges facing PEI including sea level rise, coastal erosion, and storm surges that result in flooding.

  1. Adapting to Climate Change
    • Infrastructure. Introduce new hazard guidance to inform development devisions and design in coastal areas and pilot green infrastructure projects for stormwater management and shoreline protection.
    • Water Resources. Model the impacts of climate change on streams, wetlands, and drinking water resources, and promote and enhance water conservation efforts as a way to reduce demands on water and wastewater systems.
    • Ecosystems. Increase the province’s protected land base in order to connect habitats and enhance biodiversity and increase collaboration with watershed groups and other community organizations, building local capacity to improve habitat resilience.
  2. Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  3. Carbon Sequestration
  4. Education and Capacity Building
    • Develop and share costal hazard maps incorporating the latest information on future sea level rise, storm surge, and coastal erosion
  5. Research and Knowledge Building
    • Deploy new tide monitoring stations to better measure storm surge and sea level rise

Future priorities and plans

PEI released a five-year Climate Change Action Plan A Climate Change Action Plan for Prince Edward Island 2018-2023 holds targets of reducing provincial GHG emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 (GPEI, 2018).

Prince Edward Island Climate Change Adaptation Recommendations Report addresses climate change adaptation on PEI. The report gives 97 recommended adaptation actions for each of the ten major sectors on PEI. The report highlights the potential critical role the provincial government could take in leading the development of a medium- and long-term strategy, as they have expertise across all sectors, and the ability to coordinate and implement large-scale initiatives (Arnold & Fenech, 2017).

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