Losing ground to climate change in coastal communities

Urban planning expert addresses local impact of climate change on coastal communities, identifies need for refocus and intervention.

Katie Willis - 19 February 2019

Homer, Alaska is losing ground, literally, according to new research by University of Alberta planning expert Jeff Birchall.

The small city situated on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula is a tourist destination for those visiting the beautiful Homer Spit, a long, sandy strip dotted with restaurants, shops, and other attractions. While a small part of the community lives here, only a few metres above sea level, the rest sits atop the surrounding bluffs. But climate change-Birchall explained-is impacting both the Spit and community's surrounding bluffs, meaning it might not look this way for long.

"The major stresses faced by Homer are storm surges and intense precipitation," said Birchall, assistant professor in the University of Alberta's School of Urban and Regional Planning. "Intense rain-on-snow events are occurring more often, and can cause flash floods which often result in erosion and bluff instability. Increased storm surge activity further challenge bluff integrity by undermining the base of coastal bluffs."

During storm surges, water and debris can block the only road connecting the Spit to the mainland, and intensified wave action can result in collapsing boardwalks and damaged infrastructure. Incorporating changes to building codes and zoning can help to improve climate change resiliency and redirect development to more sustainable areas, Birchall explained. But despite this, policymakers are encouraging development of these beautiful, but increasingly unstable areas of the community.

"There are major obstacles to making these kinds of changes," said Birchall, who was recently elected to the College of Fellows of the of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Climate change is impacting both the Homer Spit and community's surrounding bluffs, meaning it might not look this way for long.

The Homer Spit at low tide. Coastal communities must address the impacts of climate change and build resiliency into their strategic planning, says Birchall. Photo credit: Jeff Birchall

In many cases, small communities do not have the resources to make major changes, and many more do not have the political mandate to make these changes.

"It is often easier to get buy-in from both policymakers and community members to make changes that improve energy efficiency and subsequently help save money," he added. "And while these preventative measures are necessary, the impacts of climate change are already here, and addressing them is important."

Birchall says if communities like Homer don't address the impacts of climate change, and build resilience into their strategic planning, the results could be catastrophic in the long run.

The paper, "Local-scale climate change stressors and policy response: The case of Homer, Alaska," is published in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management (doi: 10.1080/09640568.2018.1537975).