Are Quebec’s Most Beautiful Islands Doomed to Disappear?

The Magdalen Islands are being swallowed up by rising sea levels, leaving islanders with a stark choice: flee or stay

Fogs rolls onto the red cliffs on the Magdalen Islands
Photograph by iStock
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This story was originally published as “Living in a Doomed Paradise Where the Sea Consumes Cottages, Cliffs, and the A&W Drive-Thru” by our friends at Hakai Magazine. It has been reprinted here with permission.

An optical illusion makes my first sighting of Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, through a blur of blades, ethereal. The sky is the same shade of silvery blue as the utterly calm sea, so that Île Brion, an uninhabited island first charted by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534, appears to float in the atmosphere like a Shangri-La levitated from the earth’s surface. The impression fades as the twin-propeller plane banks toward a runway on the central landmass of the archipelago, which consists of a dozen islands in the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Green meadows meticulously outlined in white sand conjure up an Ireland unmoored: emerald isles that somehow seem to have drifted to the other side of the Atlantic.

The plane touches down on the island of Havre aux Maisons, which is linked to Cap aux Meules, the island where the big car ferries dock, by the archipelago’s only highway. The following day, I drive my rental car to the island of Grande Entrée, where the pavement of Route 199 runs out in the parking lot of a small harbour. A couple dozen fishing boats bob behind concrete breakwaters. From the passenger seat, Catherine Leblanc-Jomphe, my guide for the day, tells me to pull over next to an abandoned lobster-processing plant.

Today is a blue-sky idyll, with light winds from the southwest urging the warm salt water breakers onto the shore. But the waters of the gulf rarely remain calm for long. Almost three years ago, the Category 5 hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas with some of the strongest winds ever to make landfall on the Atlantic’s shores. By the time it tracked north to the Magdalens, Dorian was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, but winds gusting up to 120 kilometres per hour raised waves as high as five-storey office buildings that tore apart summer cottages, collapsed coastal roads, and left sailboats heaped on the shore face like plastic toys in a drained bathtub. Two weeks before my latest visit, the remains of another hurricane, Category 4 Ida, inundated the islands with 100 millimetres of rain, enough to cause sewers to overflow and temporarily turn the stretch of highway that runs through the community of Cap-aux-Meules, the commercial and administrative heart of the Magdalens, into a river.

Storms like these, the shock troops of the climate crisis, are bringing with them unprecedented rates of coastal erosion. A land of immense natural beauty without much land to lose, the Magdalens were included in Time magazine’s global ranking of “10 Amazing Places to Visit Before they Vanish.”

Leblanc-Jomphe, who trained as a geographer, leads me from the parking lot onto a sandy beach at the mouth of the harbour of Grande Entrée, which is bracketed to the north and south by strips of dune. In her work as project manager for Attention Frag’Îles, a nonprofit association that, for over thirty years, has worked to protect the Magdalens’ fragile coastal ecosystem of dunes, lagoons, marshes, and sandstone cliffs, Leblanc-Jomphe keeps a close eye on dozens of sites affected by sea-level rise and human activity. Just offshore, the sandy bottom slopes off into a channel deep enough to allow heavily laden barges to enter the harbour. The force of the waves subjects this stretch of shorefront to relentless erosion. A few years ago, the sea cut channels through the foredune, the ridge that faces the water, threatening a half-dozen homes and businesses. Sand was dredged from the channel’s bottom and dumped on the shore to nourish the beach. Almost immediately, the waves bore it away.

“Then they tried to armour the shore with big rocks,” Leblanc-Jomphe tells me. “But the waves here are so high that they were completely washed away by storms. So we took a risk and tried something we never had before.” Attention Frag’Îles assembled dozens of wooden lobster traps donated by local fishermen, and after removing plastic cords, rubber, metal, and other nonbiodegradable materials, tied them together to form a chain parallel to the shore. “We covered them with a mega-load of thousands of tonnes of sand, to reconstitute the dune.” Blowing
wind aggregates sand around the solid wooden spine of the traps, allowing the dune to grow back.

Leblanc-Jomphe strides alongside the dune, inspecting the tufts of beach grass that have taken root on its crest. “Three years later, it’s still here.” Thanks to the line of traps, the dune survived the assault of Dorian. “It’s true, it’s not as wide as it used to be. But look,” she says, pointing to the house a few metres behind the dune. “Before, the waves could reach the front door. Now there’s enough of a dune to offer it protection.”

On shorelines around the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Sea of Japan, the response to worsening storms increasingly involves aggressive—and costly—seashore armouring. In the United States, researchers estimate that over 22,000 kilometres have been hardened this way. For the time being, the Magdalens have retained much of the unprotected sandy beachfront that draws tourists from around the world. But, as the sea level rises, the labour-intensive armouring of the archipelago’s shores has begun. Residents, and visitors like me who have succumbed to the islands’ magic, fear that walls of stone and concrete will rob the Magdalens of their seductive charm.

“The beauty of our landscape is important,” says Leblanc-Jomphe. “If you armour the shores with rock everywhere, you lose that.”

The Magdalen Islands, a case study in our response to the rising sea levels that threaten coastal environments worldwide, provides two visions of the future in one compact setting. The first, the hard approach, transforms shorefronts into lengthy bunkers of concrete and rock to protect valued real estate. The second, the softer approach, may turn out to be the hardest to get right. As the residents of the Magdalens are discovering, it involves working with nature to adapt to coastal erosion while accepting that, in many places, the smartest way forward will have to mean retreat.

I first came to the Magdalen Islands as a tourist, part of the wave of visitors—most from the “continent,” as people here refer to the Canadian mainland—that unfurls on these shores every summer. I spent a week walking on bluffs topped with whitewashed Catholic crosses, striking up conversations at pubs and fish shacks, happily filling the trunk of my car with smoked herring, raw-milk cheeses, and locally made beers and ciders. Most of the islands’ nearly 12,700 year-round residents—who refer to themselves as Madeliniennes and Madelinots—are French-speaking Acadians, descendants of the 10,000 farmers expelled from Maine and the Canadian Maritimes starting in 1755. A small English-speaking population, many of whom trace their roots to survivors of shipwrecks, are clustered in the community of Old-Harry, on Grosse Île, and on Entry Island, which is accessible only by boat. The archipelago is closer to the coast of Newfoundland than it is to the eastern tip of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, and five hours by car ferry from the nearest port, Souris, on Prince Edward Island. Seal hunting was once a major source of income, but as European bans on importing seal fur caused demand to plummet, Madelinots now practise a much-reduced hunt focused on keeping the population in check and providing meat for local restaurants. Fishing, however, continues to provide employment: over 300 boats participate in the tightly restricted fisheries for scallops, plaice, halibut, mackerel, and lobster.

My first visit came two weeks after Dorian made landfall, and evidence of its passage, in the form of washed-out roads and storm-damaged cottages, was hard to miss. Just as I was falling in love with the islands, many commentators seemed to be predicting their imminent disappearance.

The archipelago measures just eighty-eight kilometres from Grosse Île, which inclines northeast toward Newfoundland, to the island of Havre Aubert, whose southwest tip points toward Prince Edward Island. Yet the islands boast an estimated 300 kilometres of sandy beaches, many composed of powdery quartz so fine that it squeaks beneath your bare feet. Most of the rest is eccentrically indented sandstone cliffs, reddened by deposits of iron and topped with verdant carpets of wildflower-studded grasses.

The Magdalens’ impressive maritime landscape—the made-for-Instagram quality that attracts some 80,000 visitors a year—may prove to be its downfall. The red sandstone arches, cliffs, and stacks, beloved by sea kayakers and beachcombers, are highly friable: scrape them with a house key and they crumble into sand.

Coastal erosion isn’t always visible from the road, so on this visit, I rent a bicycle and pedal the gravel paths that lead to the sinuous shoreline’s promontories. At Gros Cap, a campground popular with sea kayakers, I peer over the grass-covered edge of an oval sinkhole next to sites occupied by campers and motorhomes; through the layers of sandstone, I can see waves breaking in the abyss a dozen metres below. On Grande Entrée, I meander along a peninsula through stunted forests of balsam fir and white spruce, until I reach a narrow ledge atop a precipitous cliff where ominous fissures in the grass-topped sandstone widen on either side of my feet. The last few steps toward the edge are nerve-racking: it feels as if a rogue wave could send the entire cliff collapsing into the breakers below. Everywhere, there are signs with images of falling rocks and tumbling stick people, urging hikers to remain on the designated trails.

While melting ice sheets, particularly in the Antarctic and Greenland, threaten coastlines around the world, a number of factors are causing relative sea level rise to affect the Magdalens more than almost anywhere else on earth. In much of eastern Canada, the land is slowly rebounding after the retreat of the glaciers. But the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet never reached far enough to cover and compress the Magdalens during the last ice age; in this part of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, the land is subsiding. Since 2000, as the land sinks, the waters here have been rising seven millimetres a year, five times the twentieth-century global average.

Making matters worse, winters in the gulf are warming at twice the global mean. In these northerly latitudes, the coldest months traditionally brought the formation of a thick layer of sea ice, isolating islanders before air travel but also girding the coast with a protective barrier against winter storms. Figures from the National Snow and Ice Data Center show that sea ice in the gulf is now diminishing by 1,437 square kilometres—an area larger than Phoenix, Arizona. A team led by Pascal Bernatchez, at the University of Quebec at Rimouski (UQAR), found that, until recently, sea ice formed for between seventy and 110 days, which meant the Magdalens spent January to the end of April girdled by frozen salt water. People could drive to Entry Island, the enclave of about fifty English-speaking fishing families, via an ice bridge. Last year, lack of sea ice led to the cancelling of les blanchons sur la banquise, an event that allows tourists to observe adult harp seals nurturing their whitecoats, as the newborn pups are known, on the ice banks. Bernatchez now estimates that, by 2055, there will be a complete absence of sea ice for up to seventy days every winter.

Add to this the ever-more-powerful winter storms, the fact that waves in the gulf tend to have a higher amplitude than those in the open ocean, and a sandstone shore singularly susceptible to erosion, and you’ve got a recipe for rapid and dramatic coastline retreat. The data the UQAR team has collected from over 1,000 monitoring stations over more than a decade paints a stark picture: parts of the coast are eroding by three-quarters of a metre per year. At that rate, the archipelago’s rocky cliffs will have retreated thirty-eight metres inland by midcentury, and its sandy beaches by double that. Bernatchez reckons that the Magdalens will likely lose eighteen kilometres of road and 262 buildings, with a combined value of almost $110 million, in the coming decades.

The Magdalens, of course, are just one of the places facing sea-level rise, which is considered a real and present danger for almost all of the nearly 4,000 of the coastal cities in the world. In this century, flooding and sea-level rise could displace anywhere from 150 million to 1 billion people. Venice, New Orleans, and Jakarta—places where, like the Magdalens, the land is subsiding—are particularly vulnerable. As oceanographer John Englander writes in his 2021 book, Moving to Higher Ground, the choices available to populations confronted with rising seas are inaction, adaptation, resistance, or retreat. The most practical option, Englander insists, is retreat.

That, however, is cold comfort for the people of the Magdalens, where there is virtually no hinterland to retreat to.

“The joke we tell around here,” says Serge Bourgeois, the planning director for the municipality of the Magdalen Islands, “is that if we keep on retreating from the coast, pretty soon we’ll fall off the other edge into the sea.”

We’re in a conference room in the islands’ municipal-administration building. If the Magdalen Islands has a downtown, it’s the community of Cap-aux-Meules on the central island of the same name: this is where the weekly farmers’ market is held during summer, where the island’s only indoor shopping mall is found, where people gather for outdoor concerts at summer festivals. Before meeting Bourgeois, I took a stroll along the shorefront bicycle path behind the city hall. In many places, the asphalt has fallen into the sea, a good five metres below, and fence posts, suspended by a guardrail, droop into the abyss. The eroding shoreline cliffs pose an immediate threat to the main hospital, sewage-treatment reservoirs—and the municipal building we’re meeting in.

“You don’t need to be a scientist to see we’re in the thick of things,” says Bourgeois, who grew up experiencing icy conditions that lasted well into April. “Now we get periods of thaw in February. The water gets into the crevasses in the cliffs, then it refreezes, expands, and crack!&mash;everything crumbles.”

In 2004, the Magdalens banned new construction within thirty metres of the shore, perhaps the first community in Quebec to insist on such a buffer zone. The zone has lately been doubled in communities such as Fatima, on Cap aux Meules, where the force of the waves has drilled subterranean caverns dozens of metres inland from the foreshore.
“So far, we’ve had to move five or six houses,” says Bourgeois, “and some have been completely demolished.”

Protecting buildings that were built before the ban is costly. Bourgeois points toward the nearby Cyrco building, which houses the islands’ only cinema, in addition to the offices of Service Canada and an A&W restaurant. The drive-through is closed: the stretch of asphalt that clients used to take after picking up their Mama Burgers and root beer has crumbled into the waters of the gulf. After Dorian, when the waves dug caverns that undermined the building’s foundations, the cliffs were reinforced with a sloping wall of rip-rap, a mix of small and medium rocks.

The previous evening, I’d attended a public meeting at a recreation centre, where municipal officials explained how they planned to protect the eroding cliffs of Cap aux Meules by extending the existing 250-metre wall of rip-rap by another 600 metres. At La Grave, a much-loved strip of historic buildings on an isthmus on the southernmost island of Havre Aubert, broken rock imported from Newfoundland was already being used to fill in the beach. An engineer with the Fédération québecoise des municipalités explained that, in total, 75,000 tonnes of granite would be dumped on the coast. The two projects will cost $20 million, with another $20 million for future projects, half of which will come from the Quebec government. (In 2021, the Magdalens, which represent just over one-hundredth of 1 percent of the total surface area of Quebec, will account for over one-third of the province’s budget for climate change adaptation.) A dozen members of the public were present in the auditorium, and most of those who took the microphone asked questions about street lighting, playgrounds, and the appearance of the waterfront promenade at La Grave.

“I’m not looking forward to people’s reactions when the work is done,” confides Bourgeois. “Today, if you go for a ride in a Zodiac off Cap aux Meules, you see the red cliffs. It makes for beautiful photos. We tried to choose the least visually traumatic solution, but when it’s done, people will see a mountain of rocks. They’re going to have to accept that the landscape is going to change.”

Bourgeois worries that building up the dunes isn’t enough. “What Attention Frag’Îles is doing is definitely worthwhile. But it’s hard to protect roads and other infrastructure with dunes and plants alone. During Dorian, I saw rocks lifted up and moved into the middle of the highway. Not little rocks—huge boulders,” he says. A single big Atlantic storm, in fact, can deploy a force equivalent to over two dozen H-bombs, enough to sweep away centuries-old dunes and displace car-sized boulders. “It completely changed the landscape: ‘soft’ methods are important, but they have to be complemented with harder methods, like armouring the coast with rocks.”

On the islands, unfortunately, right-sized rocks are thin on the ground. The granite being dumped at La Grave has to be shipped from Newfoundland. After a thirty-six-hour crossing by barge, the rocks are hauled south to La Grave. This procession of heavily laden trucks is already degrading the asphalt, meaning Route 199 will have to be resurfaced much earlier than scheduled and at substantial cost.

Before leaving the city hall, I meet with Jonathan Lapierre, mayor of the Magdalens since 2013, to ask him about the logic of shipping in armouring materials from off island.

“Look,” Lapierre says, with a touch of exasperation. “We’ve been facing these problems for twenty years. We do try to use some local materials. But we don’t want to tear apart the landscape either! Every time we rip up a hillside for the little bit of rock inside, part of our territory disappears. And the beauty of our landscape is our calling card, our collective wealth.

“The islands are at the heart of climate change. The good news is, collectively, we’ve decided to react.”

At the end of last summer’s tourist season, La Grave became a construction site. During the day, a new truck arrived every ten or fifteen minutes to dump its load of dun-coloured Newfoundland granite onto the beach.

On one side of this narrow isthmus, the waves of the gulf break on a rocky beach with full force; the other side looks out onto a sheltered bay. During the first half of the twentieth century, this strip of sand was built up with clapboard sheds; fishermen salted their catch on the ground floor and slept in second-floor lofts. Most of the buildings were raised on pilings, allowing storm surges to pass under their floorboards without damage.
Entrepreneurs have turned the old salting sheds into souvenir shops, cafés, and bakeries, and La Grave has become one of the islands’ busiest tourist destinations. The world’s largest amateur sand-castle-building contest takes place on nearby Sandy Hook beach every August. I chat with Hugues Poirier, the co-creator of a series of Asterix-like comics about the adventures of Néciphore, a ne’er-do-well, beer-swilling sailor whose speech is peppered with Acadian slang. Poirier has sold Néciphore-related swag on La Grave for the past fifteen years. When Dorian hit, mud close to knee height filled his boutique; he figures that, by the time the waters receded, he’d lost 325 hardcover graphic novels—just under $10,000 in inventory.

“The solution they’ve found, armouring the coast, for sure it’s going to be ugly. When they’ve finished dumping the rocks, we won’t even be able to see the horizon,” he says. “It’s an incredible feeling to live next to the sea. But I suspect that, with the rising ocean, a lot of houses will have to be moved.”

Poirier is trying to decide whether to invest in renovating his rented boutique. He figures it might be a good idea to raise the buildings on La Grave on pilings again, as they were half a century ago. But he’s also grappling with the painful reality that, in the long run, the smartest thing may be to find another—probably far less attractive—location for his shop.

Almost everybody I meet has similar stories to share: of cottages ruined by storms, of childhood landscapes made unrecognizable by flooding, of sleepless nights watching picture windows balloon inward under the force of hurricane-force gusts. Many Madelinots seem to be living in a permanent state of premature mourning, as if they realize they are inhabiting a paradise doomed to disappear.

Route 199 connects the islands of Cap aux Meules and Havre Aubert by a narrow thread of barrier beach known as La Martinique, where I happen to be staying. Curious about those who continue to live close to the rising waves, I walk across the highway to a bungalow perched precariously close to a heavily eroded cliff. Diane Lapierre is painting her garage, and with a wave of her hand indicates she doesn’t have time to talk about storms and wave damage. But her companion, Diane Saint-Jean, a retired nurse from the Saguenay region, is more forthcoming. She explains that they moved into the house after Dorian swept through the islands. They spent tens of thousands of dollars—including $1,500 on a permit from the municipality—to renovate the house and armour their stretch of shore with thirty-nine truckloads of rock.

“We call the house our bunker,” Saint-Jean says. “It’s excessively solid. When you’re in the basement, you can’t even hear a storm. We’ve lived through 120-kilometre-an-hour winds, and we don’t panic.” I point to the cliff edge, about a telephone pole’s distance from their bungalow’s deck and ask if she ever regrets buying property so close to the sea.

“No, and I’ll tell you why. I’m seventy-five; my companion is sixty; we have no children. We’ve invested to protect ourselves. The rocks we’ve put down may last ten, fifteen years. Will we still be around then?” she wonders. “It’s not certain. In the meantime, we’ve made our dream come true. We get up in the morning, and we have a 280-degree view over the ocean. When the sun is out, monsieur, this is paradise!”

While scientists and administrators insist the two best responses to the challenge of sea-level rise and erosion are retreat and avoiding any future construction close to shore, “les Dianes” as they’re known to their neighbours, are a vivid example of another, very human, reaction: stubborn resistance.

A ten-minute bike ride to the north, I encounter another reaction. The Chemin des Chalets (“cottage row”) is a low-lying strip of road that has long been a favourite site for Madelinots’ summer cottages. Dunes protected the homes, but when Dorian hit, sea water cut through the sand and reached the brackish lagoon on the other side of the gravel road, destroying several cottages in the process. Since then, the municipality has abandoned the Chemin des Chalets to its fate, refusing to issue new construction permits.

A middle-age man sits on a lawn chair outside a recreational vehicle parked on the beach. “I’m from Montreal,” Claude Beaulieu tells me. “I’ve been coming here for twenty-five years. There used to be a cottage on this property, but it was destroyed.” I ask him if he’s observed a change in the coast over the years. “There’s a bit of erosion. But the coasts have been eroding for a hell of a long time! I’d like to protect my property, build an eight-foot [2.4-metre] wall, but we’ve been abandoned by the municipality, and the government of Quebec. They said, ‘Everybody out, no more cottages here!’ But they don’t have the right to evacuate us. People have spent their lives working to pay for houses here.” Beaulieu says he has no intention of leaving.

This, then, is the final possible response, one likely to prove common in this century: barnacle-like inaction, enabled by a strong dose of denial. I leave Beaulieu on the shore, working on a can of Heineken, to stare balefully at the waves of the gulf breaking a few metres from his lawn chair.

“Shoreline erosion per se is not a problem,” the renowned marine geologist Orrin H. Pilkey has said. “We are the problem.” It’s precisely because humans love the seashore that we build homes and cottages close to it. And, when the oceans threaten these residences, we build sea walls, breakwaters, groynes, and other forms of armouring that, at best, compromise the charm of the coasts and, at worst, actually destroy the shore by redirecting the waves’ energy to cliffs and beaches. In Japan and Britain, so much of the coastline is reinforced with concrete and rocks that natural beaches now verge on extinct. Shoreline engineering is a treadmill, argues Pilkey. Once you start, you can never stop; it’s better to leave the beach alone.

Before I leave the Magdalens, Catherine Leblanc-Jomphe wants to show me another example of an alternative to the hard approach. This time, I follow her to another site, not far from the harbour on Grande Entrée we’d first visited, on a sandspit that extends toward a salt water inlet once famous for its oversized oysters. She shows me how teams from Attention Frag’Îles have roped off a narrow passage over the sand so that the drivers of trucks and all-terrain vehicles can reach the beach to fish without damaging the dunes. As at the fishing port, past-their-prime lobster traps are staked into the sand in a row, offering protection against the water’s advance inland toward the adjacent wetlands and a maritime forest of white spruce. Picket fences and capteurs de sable, sand-trapping tangles of dried tree branches, have also been set up to create nodes where the windblown grains of quartz can accumulate. Picking her way through the wetland, careful not to tread on purple asters, white clover, and wild mint, Leblanc-Jomphe uses a spade to dig out several tufts of beach grass.

This is marram grass, Ammophila arenaria, known in French as ammophile (from the Greek for “sand loving”), a beach grass that occurs naturally in the Magdalens. Leblanc-Jomphe holds up the stem of the plant, showing me its narrow, fluting leaves. “They form a kind of canal; when the wind blows sand, it’s captured by the leaves and slides down the canal toward the roots. And the sand that collects stimulates the plant to grow higher.” Holding up a bundle of tangled roots, she shows me how it sparkles with grains of clinging sand.

Leblanc-Jomphe carries a half-dozen marram grass plants to the foot of the dune and, after digging holes about a footstep’s length apart, tamps them into place. Previous attempts at transplanting have proven successful: the root network, as it spreads in search of water, stabilizes and strengthens the dune, preventing it from migrating inland. And stable dunes serve as natural seawalls; as long as they aren’t broken by motor vehicles and foot traffic, they offer durable protection against waves. Once established, regular infusions of sand are needed to feed the dune. Unlike suitable forms of rock and gravel, sand is one resource that is abundant on the Magdalens.
Given the power of the rising sea, transplanting beach grass onto a dune might seem like a leap of faith. In the long run, though, revegetated dunes may prove a more durable barrier than rocks and walls. And, in a place whose geography often makes retreat impractical, revegetation provides a hopeful alternative to stubborn resistance and dogged denial.

Leblanc-Jomphe stands up, brushing the sand from her hands. “We can’t really struggle against climate change,” she says. “It’s bigger and stronger than we are.” As her gaze wanders to the horizon, she seems to struggle with sadness before a look of resolve takes over. “But we can try to adapt and find new solutions to improve the fate of our beaches. Even if we just prolong their existence for a single season—well, that’s better than nothing at all.”

The alternative—the hard approach of armouring to hold back the rising seas—will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Pouring concrete and dumping rocks might, for a few years, save a few homes, cottages, and businesses. But doing so will come with an even higher price tag—the loss of something intangible, that quality that makes the Madeliniennes and Madelinots love these islands: their fragile beauty.

Taras Grescoe
Taras Grescoe (@grescoe) has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, and The New Yorker. His next book, on the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s, will be published in 2019 by Biblioasis.

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