Note: Sea levels are rising at a pace unparalleled in modern times and storms are becoming more intense as a result of global warming. This story is part of a weeklong series examining our rising oceans, the impact on our region and what government, scientists and others are doing to track change and mitigate damage.
Buildings in many Nova Scotia communities tend to overlook the sea.
But the building’s owners can no longer overlook the relentless onslaught of the rising and surging water.
“Recently, we hit the 40-year anniversary of the first scientist ringing the bell on sea level rise,” said Peter Bigelow, planning director with Develop Nova Scotia, the Crown corporation formerly known as Waterfront Development.
“We see it every day, not just sea level rise but climate change, in higher frequency of storms, getting higher water levels.”
Bigelow said a Jan. 15 winter storm churned up downtown Halifax sea levels, creeping to within about 30 centimetres of the level reached during hurricane Juan in September 2003.
“We’ve seen those levels way more consistently than we have in the past,” Bigelow said. “We are just looking at it from how high it comes up on our wharfs. It’s definitely a concern but it is going to require collective action, a collective strategy. That comes from a number of levels of government and a number of agencies.”
The Crown corporation owns properties on both sides of Halifax harbour, in Bedford and in Lunenburg.
“Our role is to facilitate economic development and sector growth by using these properties,” Bigelow said. The corporation doesn’t sell the land, it either holds onto it as an approved and held property or enters into long-term leases with developers to build on the properties.
Bigelow said there are a number of property owners on the Halifax waterfront, including National Defence, the port authority, Irving shipbuilding and other publicly and privately owned lots and buildings.
Development projects have to go through the municipal planning process, he said, and the developer and the city are cognizant of rising sea levels and how that should direct the design of new waterfront buildings.
Such is the case with Armour Group and its Queen’s Marque development at the foot of George Street.
“The developer for Queen’s Marque has signed a 100-year lease and pays a rent every year and that gives them the right to build their development, but also in return, two-thirds of the site is public open space and will be returned to us as public open space. They’ll own the building.”
Bigelow said the developer has done a lot to future-proof the building, which when completed next year will be the equivalent of 10 residential floors.
“It’s anticipated to outlast the anticipated impact of sea level rise over the next 100 years.”
The mixed commercial and residential design includes reinforced galvanized steel, a totally sealed underground parking structure, a commercial ground floor that will be higher than all the ground floors in surrounding buildings and a physical plant that will not be located on the ground floor.
Bigelow said the Crown corporation awaits the new flood mapping planned by Halifax Regional Municipality.
Flood-prone jurisdictions around the world mitigate the effect of rising waters by using flood barriers and protective marshes.
But some buildings or parts of them may need to be abandoned in future, Bigelow said.
“In places like Venice, they are all built on piles just like our buildings are. They have just had to abandon some of their ground floors but still maintain the building.
“As we are rehabilitating buildings, we are actually considering whether they need to be around for the next 100 years or not. It’s all about investment.”
Old wharfs and historical buildings weren’t constructed to cope with sea level rise, he said.
“We never really scratched our heads back 200 years ago when we put in those wharfs around Halifax Harbour or Lunenburg harbour and thought that we’d have to address these kinds of challenges. They were built for the day, they weren’t built forever. Sometimes, it’s about thinking where you want to make the stand and where you let things go. We don’t have those answers but we are looking at how we would explore those kinds of questions."