How global warming might transform Vancouver’s shoreline

Bing Thom Architects has investigated how global warming might transform Vancouver’s shoreline if no dikes are built.

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      Granville Island, Kitsilano and Jericho beaches, the Stanley Park seawall, the Downtown Eastside, and the port all help to define Vancouver in the eyes of the world. But try to imagine what this city would look like if all of these local landmarks were underwater.

      Ridiculous, you say? Perhaps. But it’s not so far-fetched if all of Greenland’s glaciers were to disappear, causing sea levels to rise—and if Vancouver didn’t take steps to ameliorate the effects.

      Media outlets regularly report on the impact of global warming on polar-bear habitat in northern Canada. Occasionally, there’s a startling news story about melting ice in Antarctica or raging forest fires in Greece or Spain. But most Vancouver residents don’t see climate change having a huge impact within city limits.

      Bing Thom Architects is trying to change that. The firm’s executive director, Michael Heeney, sustainability expert Eileen Keenan, and planner Andy Yan have researched the effects of a rising sea level on Vancouver’s land mass. And they’ve discovered that different levels have radically different effects.

      The firm was able to conduct this research thanks to the city’s open-data catalogue, which makes information about the shoreline available on the city’s Web site. Heeney, Keenan, and Yan recently visited the Georgia Straight office to talk about their work, which examined the impact of sea level rising in one-metre increments up to seven metres. Yan described their research as a “tool kit and an atlas for discussion”.

      They began with a slide showing an 1898 map of Vancouver. At that time, the waterline of False Creek extended far east of Main Street, almost reaching what is now Clark Drive. The area now called False Creek Flats was later reclaimed. “Cities in history have seen changes in their shorelines, whether you’re in London or whether you’re in Greece,” Yan commented. “That change is inevitable.”

      Another slide indicated what would happen to Vancouver’s land mass with a one-metre rise in sea level. The effects were relatively modest: a loss of waterfront over the city’s entire shoreline. There was also a sizable patch of lost land in tidal flats on the southwest side of the city.

      Keenan, who chairs the Vancouver planning commission, pointed out that sea levels are based on average tide, but climate change will be accompanied by increased storm surges. “You have to add on high tide and the impact of a storm to look at the development area that will be impacted,” she said.

      The firm’s next slide showed what would happen with a two-metre increase in sea level. It revealed the loss of Musqueam land southwest of the UBC campus, along with a slightly expanded band of lost land along the shoreline. At a three-metre rise, there are more noticeable effects: Kitsilano Beach, waterfront area along Point Grey Road, Jericho Beach, much of Southlands, and parts of South Vancouver between Marpole and Knight Street vanish into the sea.

      More dramatic impacts appear on the next slide, which shows the city with a four-metre rise in sea level. Stanley Park becomes an island separated from the West End. Granville Island and part of the port disappear. And in an echo of the past, False Creek extends across Main Street.

      Yan explained that, historically, Vancouver buildings have usually been placed at least two metres away from the water. But if sea levels rise higher than that, the impact will be great. “How do you reset the city and actually rebuild another two metres back from the new shoreline?” he said. “Again, perhaps that’s one of the biggest challenges.”

      Things start looking a little surreal with a five-metre rise in sea level. False Creek now extends almost to Clark Drive. A tiny isthmus connects East Vancouver with the downtown peninsula. The port, along with most of the Downtown Eastside and Gastown, no longer exists. The beach at Spanish Banks and the nearby park are gone.

      At a six-metre rise, the downtown peninsula becomes a second large island beside Stanley Park. With a seven-metre rise, the northeast side of the city forms another island, creating an archipelago effect.

      Heeney and Keenan emphasized that these projections assume that no measures will be taken to reduce the impact of a rising sea. They pointed out that governments can easily take steps to adapt to these changes, but it will require smart planning. “For sure, people are going to be building dikes,” Heeney said. “So you don’t want to be overly alarmist.”

      Keenan noted that the Netherlands has successfully dealt with being below sea level at a relatively low cost. She said she attended a conference where a Dutch delegate told her that flood-protection measures cost less than 0.2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. “They’ve had to build dikes and pumps and things like that,” she said. “We’re perfectly capable of doing that.”

      The City of Vancouver has exerted enormous effort to mitigate climate change by reducing overall emissions, achieving the percentage reduction allotted to Canada in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. For that, Vancouver was named the most sustainable city in Canada by Corporate Knights magazine. However, the city has not focused as much attention on adapting to climate change, with council receiving a single report on the topic, in 2008.

      Bing Thom Architects has demonstrated that under most of the rising-sea-level scenarios the greatest loss would be to industrial land and to the limited agricultural land in Southlands if no measures were taken to turn back the tides. If sea level were to rise by three metres, the city would lose four percent of its total land base but 16 percent of its industrial land. At a four-metre rise in sea level, 30 percent of the industrial land would disappear, and this would rise to 55 percent with a five-metre rise in sea level.

      Heeney, a member of the Vancouver Economic Development Commission, said that the city’s industrial-land base provides a large number of well-paying jobs, which is why planners should pay attention to this issue. “We have an affordability problem,” he said. “That affordability problem has two sides—one is the cost of real estate, the other is median salaries. We have to be working at both ends.”

      So what is the likelihood of dramatically higher sea levels? According to Hadi Dowlatabadi, a professor at UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability, a key consideration is what happens to the glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. In a phone interview with the Straight, Dowlatabadi explained that as the oceans absorb more heat, they will expand. “Our current thoughts are that the amount of heat that is being absorbed by the oceans has already committed us to a sea-level rise of 40 or 50 centimetres this century,” he said.

      That’s infinitesimal compared to a seven-metre sea-level rise that would result from the melting of all the glaciers in Greenland, and a 70-metre rise in sea level if all the glaciers disappeared from Antarctica. Dowlatabadi, a mathematician who creates quantitative models, said the UN–mandated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change relied on an older model to assess the melting of all glaciers around the world. He estimated that using this approach would add another 50-centimetre rise in sea level by the end of the century.

      However, he said that scientists who have measured Greenland’s glaciers more carefully have discovered that water is flowing to the bottom, creating a lubricant between the ice and rock and facilitating more rapid movement of ice toward the ocean. He said that the people who have done this measurement have concluded that this could lead to a 1.5- to 3-metre increase in sea level by the end of the century. But Dowlatabadi emphasized that it’s still unclear if this lubricating process is occurring in all the glaciers in Greenland or in just those that have been studied.

      “The people who like the new method took their stuff to NASA,” Dowlatabadi said. “So if you go to the Web, you’ll see pictures of Florida with a three-metre sea-level rise. It’s all visualized.”

      He described those doing the measurements in Greenland as “good scientists”, but he added that there are other complicating factors. For example, there are questions about whether the clouds act like a good thermostat and attenuate the impact of rising carbon-dioxide levels, which can alleviate climate change. He also said that he wonders if any processes that might keep the global temperature from rising have their own impacts on the Earth. “One of the things you would be doing is evaporating a lot more water,” Dowlatabadi said.

      That water vapour, which is a greenhouse gas, is normally transported away from the equator and toward the poles. If it turns into snow falling on Greenland, this will delay the net melting of the glaciers.

      Regardless, Dowlatabadi said he expects False Creek Flats to experience flooding eventually in the absence of any dikes. “If you put people there, you will be putting them in harm’s way in the same way as Dutch people living below sea level,” he added.

      In addition, he predicted that Point Grey Road will disappear if there isn’t a dike built within 50 years. He thinks it’s likely that the city will address the issue by raising the roadbed. “That will protect it for a while,” Dowlatabadi remarked.

      Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey reported last month that ice shelves are retreating from the southern section of Antarctica because of climate change. This area contains five major ice shelves, including the Wilkins Shelf, which has lost more than 4,000 square kilometres since 1998. The Larsen B ice shelf, which was in the same area, collapsed in 2002.

      “As the ice shelves break off, it is easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea,” the USGS stated in a February 22 news release. “The transition of that ice from land to the ocean is what raises sea level.”

      With a two-metre rise in sea level and no new dikes (left), Vancouver will lose land in Southlands. With a seven-metre rise (right), downtown and Stanley Park could become islands. Bing Thom Architects maps.

      UVic climate scientist Andrew Weaver is one of the IPCC’s lead authors. In a phone interview with the Straight, he noted that the international organization of climate scientists suggested in 2007 that sea levels would increase by up to 59 centimetres by the end of the century. However, he acknowledged that this didn’t take into account new research about what has taken place in Greenland and Antarctica, both of which are contributing more to a rise in sea level than previously understood.

      “A better assessment on global sea-level rise would probably be something like an upper bound of one-and-a-half metres by the end of the century,” Weaver said. “That’s probably a better ballpark assessment as an upper bound, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”

      He noted that there are strong regional changes in sea levels. For example, the Gulf Stream will probably amplify the effect on the east coast of the United States, whereas this won’t happen on the west coast. Changing wind patterns can also have an impact, he added.

      “A one-metre sea-level rise is hardly significant for large parts of B.C.,” Weaver said, citing Richmond and Delta as exceptions to the rule. “It’s a huge issue in many parts of the world: China, many low-lying islands, places in the southern U.S.”

      Two Metro Vancouver municipalities have already taken steps to deal with rising sea levels. West Vancouver has been working on shoreline adaptation since 2005, according to a report that went to council on March 15. The district’s Climate Action Working Group’s recent report, “Towards Fossil Fuel Freedom”, recommends assessing climate-related vulnerabilities and conducting a cost-benefit analysis of dealing with them. In addition, the report asks the district to prioritize actions to prepare for rising sea levels and to assign responsibility to the appropriate departments.

      Meanwhile, Richmond city council has already approved a flood-protection management strategy through to 2031. According to a 2009 report to council by the city’s director of engineering, John Irving, the city owns and operates 49 kilometres of dikes on Lulu Island.

      “While there currently is not a Provincial sea level rise policy in place, the Province has indicated in recent correspondence that current construction around dikes should allow for future dike raising to address a 1.2 metre sea level rise by the year 2100,” Irving wrote.

      Later in the report, he added: “Given the fact that sea level rise is taking place in the absence of a Provincial policy, staff have been proactively proceeding with dike upgrades since 2005 based on an allowance of 0.5-metre over and above the current Provincial requirement.”

      The cost of doing this would be $28.2 million, according to Irving’s report, which noted that raising the dikes to address a sea-level rise of 1.2 metres would increase the cost.

      There has also been some research at the regional level. Metro Vancouver commissioned consulting engineers at Kerr Wood Leidal Associates Ltd. to study the vulnerability of Vancouver’s sewerage infrastructure to climate change. In its 2008 report, it stated that a rise in sea level “will affect discharge hydraulics at outfalls, though negative effects will be marginal”. It also pointed out that seawater intrusion into the collection system at the plant could have an impact on the relative concentration of ions in the wastewater, which could affect performance. Kerr Wood Leidal concluded that the probability of this has been “judged to be remote”. But an increase in storm surge will have a negative effect on the effluent outfall. In addition, the plant “is also potentially at risk from increases in average sea level from a site flooding perspective”, according to the report.

      The federal and provincial governments published a document in December 2008 listing three scenarios for sea-level changes in B.C. The “extreme low” analysis estimated that the Fraser River Delta will see a 35-centimetre rise by the end of the century. The “mean” estimate was a 50-centimetre increase, and the “extreme high” prediction was for a 1.2-metre jump in sea level by 2100.

      The report pointed out that estimating sea level is a fairly complex task because there are several variables, including changes in global ocean volumes due to the melting of glaciers and expansion of oceans due to warming. The earth’s plates also move—rising two to three millimetres per year on western Vancouver Island and sinking one to two millimetres per year in the Fraser River Delta. And, the report notes, strong southeasterly winter winds combined with a low-pressure system and poleward coastal currents can increase sea level by more than a half-metre.

      “Of particular concern will be extreme weather events, such as storm surges, occurring at the same time as these high sea levels,” the report states. “These extreme events can add as much as one metre to sea levels, regardless of local shoreline features and waves.”

      The trio from Bing Thom Architects said they’re not climate scientists, and their intention isn’t to provide all the answers. Instead, they hope that their maps tracking the impact of sea-level increases will lead to better planning decisions in the future. “This is to aid in the discussion so that people can see these implications,” Heeney said.

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      Mar 18, 2010 at 10:50am

      Maybe instead of planning how to build fancier shoreline amenities and super-leveraged carbon-based financial derivatives, we could plan how to stop dumping human waste, garbage and chemicals in the ocean. We could also consider asking France to stop nuking the ocean.

      "The trio from Bing Thom Architects said they’re not climate scientists" Well here's an interview with someone who is, and has been studying sea level changes for 35 years. Check it out:


      Mar 18, 2010 at 12:04pm

      I used to do topographical surveys on the dikes and canals in Surrey. Any of the land in Richmond, Delta, and flat parts of Surrey, are no more than a few feet above the existing high tides. Combined with a storm and you get the destruction that hit Crescent Beach in the mid-80's.

      COV got the award for trying and not for results

      Mar 18, 2010 at 12:44pm

      Yes, COV does have many initiatives to reduce GHG emissions. The Burrard bridge lane allocation for cyclists according to the COV has increased travel times for drivers by 10% and has resulted in 10% more GHG emissions. However, we don't have people smart enough to understand and the COV wins awards anyways.

      ChrisB Critter

      Mar 18, 2010 at 5:01pm

      Hey Birdy, about the Mí–RNER piece. What a guy, first he spends the first 1.5 pages telling the world how wonderful he is then he goes on to debunk some empirical studies that weren't very persuasive in the first place, in an effort to debunk sea level rise. Surely some land rises and some sinks and the Tuvalu Islands are replacing their fresh water with salty. The fact remains, the global temperature is rising which is melting the ice over land-masses such as Antarctica, Greenland, Siberia and Canada which is flowing into the sea and raising global sea levels. Maybe not 6 meters, but measurably. So Mr. Mí¶rner should maybe take his head out of the sink-hole before he drowns, or dies of thirst!


      Mar 18, 2010 at 6:18pm

      Well now we can make new roads around the perimeter of the seashore, wait we already are building the south perimeter road.


      Mar 18, 2010 at 7:51pm

      global warming is a myth used to control YOU.

      John G

      Mar 18, 2010 at 11:33pm

      Reminds me of what Vancouver's shoreline used to look like before developers land-filled all the tidal and marsh lands.

      ChrisB Critter

      Mar 19, 2010 at 12:27am

      Oh sean, I guess you think thousands of scientists are wrong, not only wrong, but trying to control YOU. True, there are those who would control US, but they ain't most scientists. There are none so blind as those who *will* not see.


      Mar 19, 2010 at 3:34am

      Hey ChrisB, ok let's go crazy and assume you're right. Do you also agree with the UN's plan of action? Derivative scams designed to transfer what's left of middle class wealth to a few hundred insanely rich families? Giving billions to genocidal 3rd world dictators? What about the methods described in "Ecoscience" is that cool too?