Assessing Vulnerability and Towards Adaptation


As shown throughout this chapter, it is clear that certain regions and sectors of Atlantic Canada are sensitive to climate change. Key sensitivities include those of coastal zones to sea-level rise and extreme events; marine ecosystems to shifting oceanic conditions; water resources to changes in temperature and precipitation; and managed systems, such as agriculture and forestry, to extreme weather and pests and pathogens. Considerable research has been conducted in each of these sectors, as illustrated in the respective sections. Although other sectors, such as transportation, energy and tourism, will also be impacted by climate change, there is less literature available on them, especially at the local level.

Understanding vulnerability also requires consideration of adaptive capacity. Although limited literature is available on adaptive capacity in the Atlantic region, certain conclusions can be drawn. Limited economic resources in many rural communities seriously constrain their adaptive capacity. The small size of farms, relative to elsewhere in Canada, and the quality of the soils reduce the ability of farmers to adapt. Previous over-harvesting restricts choices for some fish harvesters and communities, and regulations designed under previous climate conditions for vessel construction, setting harvesting seasons and other activities may be less suitable as climate continues to change. The expense of relocating existing critical infrastructure situated in vulnerable locations may be prohibitive. Local customs, traditions and personal attachment to the land make relocation or abandonment of houses along the coastlines or on floodplains unattractive or impossible for many people.

Atlantic Canada also has substantial assets that increase its adaptive capacity. The resilience of residents is strong. Residents have successfully adapted to the existing weather conditions. Climate change scenarios indicate that future conditions will involve ‘more of the same’ in terms of the types of extreme climate events that currently occur, although their frequency and magnitude are projected to increase. Historical events, such as the Saxby Gale of 1869 and the Great Hurricane of 1775, can be used as proxies for future events, both in terms of their physical effects and the individual human and community response. Although economic resources may be lacking in some communities, community resilience and social cohesion provide a counterweight that will help facilitate adaptation.

Successful adaptation depends upon recognition of the problem and application of thought and resources. To do so, education, information and especially change in people ’s attitude to climate change will be essential to accelerate the responses (especially adaptive actions) in communities. It will also depend on the degree to which humans can influence the sector under consideration. For marine and terrestrial ecosystems, where the possibility of direct human control is limited, the potential for adaptation is relatively low. In these areas, adaptation from the human perspective consists primarily of recognizing and monitoring the changes that are occurring from all causes, and employing management approaches that minimize non-climate stresses on the systems.

Adaptation in sectors such as agriculture, energy, transportation and communities also involves recognition of change and response. In many instances, adaptation is already underway: examples include changes in agricultural crops, efforts to conserve energy and water, design of more robust transportation and energy transmission infrastructure, and development of renewable energy technology. Communities such as Annapolis Royal, Channel-Port aux Basques, Beaubassin, Tignish and Halifax have all undertaken initiatives to adapt to ongoing climate change.

By assessing the available literature on impacts and adaptation in Atlantic Canada, and by considering these generalizations regarding adaptive capacity, the authors have developed a table summarizing the vulnerability of sectors discussed in the chapter (Table 5). These classifications, ranging from low to high, are subjective estimates based on discussion among the lead and contributing authors. As such, they represent expert opinion, based on current knowledge. The broad scale of the analysis means that generalizations and averaging were necessary, and these classifications may not apply to specific locations or industries.

TABLE 5: Exposure, sensitivity and vulnerability of the sectors in Atlantic Canada discussed in this report.
Sector Exposure Sensitivity Adaptive capacity Vulnera-bility Confidence level
Terrestrial ecosystems Low to moderate Low to moderate Moderate to high Low to moderate Moderate to High
Coastal zone High High Moderate High High
Marine ecosystems High to moderate High to moderate Low to moderate High to moderate Moderate to High
Water resources Moderate Moderate High Moderate High
Forestry Low Low Low to moderate Low to Moderate Moderate
Agriculture High High Moderate Moderate Moderate to High
Transportation Low Low to Moderate Moderate to high Low to Moderate Moderate
Energy Low Low to Moderate Moderate to high Low to Moderate High
Tourism Moderate Moderate Moderate Moderate Low to Moderate
Rural communities Moderate to high High Low to moderate High Moderate
Urban communities Moderate to high Moderate High to moderate Moderate High

From this table, it is apparent that key vulnerabilities in the Atlantic region relate to the coastal zone, agriculture and rural communities.


It is clear that successful adaptation would produce a variety of beneficial results. Social, economic and environmental impacts would be reduced through recognition of climate-related hazards and the implementation of appropriate responses. This would be facilitated by provision of better tools to integrate climate change and long-term impacts into development decision-making processes, adoption of new building codes to reduce potential damage, and strengthening of policies to protect sensitive ecosystems. Marine resources, for example, could be more effectively managed if climate change impacts were fully integrated into assessments and policy development. Such policies need to recognize that climate will continue to change for many decades or centuries.

In many instances, desirable adaptations represent application of previously known principles, and would bring benefits regardless of climate change (no regrets). For example, all residents would benefit from improved management of water resources; diversification of energy sources; increased efficiency in the use of water, energy and other climate-sensitive resources; and improvements to the transportation systems. Designation of flood hazard zones is another example of a no-regrets adaptive measure. Residents of Atlantic Canada have the capacity to designate areas that are unsuitable for construction due to natural hazards, but also need to follow through by ensuring that, in future, structures are not built in areas at risk.

Many authors agree that the knowledge available is sufficient to begin adaptation, but there are important research and assessment needs that, if addressed, would help support adaptation decisions (Adger et al., 2005; Baethgen et al., 2005; Martin and Chouinard, 2005). Many studies also note a lack of awareness in communities of the seriousness of climate change impacts and the necessity for proactive adaptation. Further research, as well as awareness-building, is necessary.

Ongoing research continues to examine environment-human relationships and interactions. Projections of future impacts benefit from improved understanding of the impacts of previous events, monitoring of ongoing changes and recognition of the interactions between various sectors. One of the major benefits of research into climate change is a vastly improved understanding of current climate conditions, and the many ways that these influence humans.

Further research could profitably focus on areas where additional confidence would help facilitate decision-making. Better understanding of potential impacts and processes is needed. Specific examples of knowledge gaps relate to:

  • changes in forest fire frequency and magnitude, and associated ecosystem impacts;
  • impacts of invasive species, and development of adaptive measures to reduce impacts and protect biodiversity;
  • impacts of changes in water temperature on freshwater and marine species;
  • interspecies relationships in marine and estuarine communities;
  • impact of climate change on tourism in Atlantic Canada;
  • understanding community resilience and capacity to respond to climate change; and
  • development and testing of ways to enhance adaptive capacity through existing mechanisms, such as environmental assessment, building codes and integrated decision- making tools.