Making space for the ocean
Helping coastal communities adapt to a changing landscape
“We need to be coastal in a different way. We have to make some tough decisions together about where we can defend, where we should defend, and where we should actually pull back and leave space for ocean dynamism.”
Kate Sherren
Professor, School for Resource and Environmental Studies, Dalhousie University
Dalhousie University

Transforming climate action

An ocean-first approach

Emerging science reveals the ocean's ability to absorb CO2 and regulate temperatures is changing in ways we don’t understand. These critical shifts are not accounted for in climate targets – a risk we can no longer take. With support from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, Dalhousie is leading an ocean-first approach to tackle climate change and equipping Canada with the knowledge, innovations, and opportunities to secure a positive climate future.

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Destroyed houses

Our connection to the land we live on is emotional. Humans are territorial by nature. But what happens when climate change forces hard questions about our continued ability to inhabit the places we call home? What happens when we push nature so hard that it begins to push us back – and out?

Dalhousie researcher, Dr. Kate Sherren, spends most of her time trying to answer these questions. The environmental social scientist focuses on how people are experiencing climate-related changes to their homes and how they respond.

An emotional reaction

Dr. Sherren says our emotional connection to the places we live can make us prone to bad choices, whether we live near forests turned tinder dry by drought, or in ocean settlements vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather events.

“A lot of the work I've done is with coastal communities to try to understand how they see changes taking place in their landscapes, and if there's space for nature-based approaches to reducing risk in the face of climate change,” says Dr. Sherren.

“It's methodologically very broad,” she says about her research that employs interviews, focus groups, surveys, and social media analysis to get into the heads of those living near the ocean. “The core of it is focused on understanding how people are perceiving and responding to global change, and particularly coastal change.”

Kate Sheeren and colleagues
Kate Sherren

A line in the sand

Through her research, Dr. Sherren tries to gauge receptivity to protection techniques such as restoring more wetlands in areas like Canada’s Bay of Fundy, which can provide natural buffers. But she is also trying to understand what it will take to gain acceptance of solutions that may be harder to swallow, including retreating from coastlines altogether.

“We need to be coastal in a different way,” says Dr. Sherren. “We need to learn that the lines we laid down at one time cannot necessarily be defended. We have to make some tough decisions together about where we can defend, where we should defend, and where we should actually pull back and leave space for ocean dynamism.”

Thirsty for information

She says the more we know about the factors that drive climate and ocean change, the better we can help communities along coastlines in Canada and around the world understand and adapt. As part of the Transforming Climate Action research team, Dr. Sherren will be able to leverage discoveries about the ocean’s role in climate change and its shifting dynamics to help steer community engagement and policy recommendations.

“Coastal communities have a thirst for this kind of information. For them, there's still an enormous amount of uncertainty,” says Dr. Sherren. “We think, in our hearts, that we're going to have time to make decisions, we think that the change is going to be gradual and that it's going to become clear when we need to cut and run, or to adapt and pull back.”

But she says that extreme weather events, such as the recent hurricane Fiona that hit Canada’s east coast, demonstrate that the time for action is already upon us. The ocean and climate are observably changing and, as part of the Transforming Climate Action research consortium, Dr. Sherren aims to help shape the policy, engagement and action needed to keep communities safe.

Natural solutions

Dr. Sherren says emotions still play an important role, even in the face of facts. She warns that threatened communities are often convinced that dikes and walls are the best means of protection. But, she says, it’s not realistic to think we can build interventions to protect every vulnerable coastline. And, even if we did, many wouldn’t stand a chance against sea level rise or increasingly destructive weather events.

This is why Dr. Sherren is a proponent of re-establishing natural defences such as wetlands that create a buffer against rising tides and storm surges. “Nature-based approaches have a self-healing function. Tidal wetlands can often grow and raise themselves as sea levels rise,” she says.

“We're used to the illusion that we're protected by dikes and walls, even though they can fail spectacularly. We need to get used to the idea that there can be a softer coastline in front of us that can keep us safe.”

Moreover, she says we need to get used to the fact that humans might need to clear out of some areas to create space for softer and safer coastlines.

“The beach and the shoreline belong to the ocean,” says Dr. Sherren. “I think we've gotten used to the idea that they're ours. But they're not.”


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