Welcome to St. Luke’s
Along the Bay of Chaleur, on New Brunswick’s coastline, right as the Bay begins narrowing and the mountains of Gaspé impose their impressive size, lies a little historic church – St. Luke’s United Church, to be precise, of approximately 1889. Unlike the grandeur of many churches that draw the eye, this little church grabs attention because of its quaint, quiet charm. It sits atop a rolling hill that gently slopes into the ocean, with a small cemetery lying at its base, very near the shoreline. With fields of wildflowers and dwarfed trees backed up against an ocean so turquois-blue, you blink to make sure you are seeing it right.
Having stopped one day to explore this picture-perfect site further, we bumped into Gordon, a man you could bet on being well known and loved by his community. Clad in a smart straw hat and garden gloves, Gordon was tending to the cemetery behind the church, a task, he later explained, that had previously fallen on his father. Gordon now continuing that tradition to this day, with the help of his son. And, while that sort of lineage in one place is an impressive feat all on its own in today’s constantly changing world, Gordon, with the help of a small community of volunteers, has also helped to develop this site into a certified charitable organization. And plans to preserve its heritage value into the future, to protect it against development, abandonment or ruin.
Gordon shared with us the unique history of the church and community, and besides hinting at the many interesting tidbits that can be found around this church, a key theme began to emerge, an often-overlooked threat to preservation – the changing environment itself. Today, the very serious threat of coastal erosion haunts those that seek to preserve St. Luke’s, as the shoreline marches steadily toward the nearby graves. Despite their best efforts, including rip-rap (stone/rubble) walls and purchasing land farther from the shoreline to move graves, all of their attempts to stave off the sea and this cemetery’s fate have merely prolonged the inevitable. Their efforts ultimately no match for environmental changes and the forces now at work in this Bay.
The story of this little church and a small community’s efforts to protect its heritage against an ever-encroaching coastal incursion, really sparked this dive into coastal erosion. This was a real-world example of a community doing all they can to save their little piece of heritage along an eroding coastline. Leading to a reconsideration of what a loss these local sites mean to individuals and communities. Such places of historical significance are of physical importance, for the information they provide, but also, and perhaps most importantly, the sense of identity and place they create and maintain.
So, What Does Climate Change Mean for Cultural Heritage?
While the environment naturally causes cycles of change for cultural heritage through weathering, climate change has intensified and made these occurrences more frequent. For example, in a simple sense, a historic stone wall may slowly degrade through rain, wind, warm-ups and deep-freezes, but with climate change, this wall is more likely to experience large-scale storms that will cause it to degrade much quicker, erode more material, even losing entire sections of stone. Simply put, rates of decay are increased.
Climate change is generally defined by gradual, nearly imperceptible, change – including shifting temperature, precipitation, atmospheric moisture, force of the wind, sea level rise and increased frequency of extreme weather events. But of particular interest to us right now is that climate change enables the creation of bigger, more violent storms with more energy, which accelerates coastal erosion. This causes wind, water, salt and whatever hazards may be churning in the water to inundate coastal areas. Combine this with the rising sea level and you can see that this is a recipe for disaster. For these very reasons, the coasts are the first and most obvious places to feel the impact of climate change, especially when it comes to the loss of cultural heritage.
This increasing threat will not only shape our coastlines, but also our identity and understanding of the past. Creating gaps in our knowledge. And this is not a problem for tomorrow, it is already happening. Sites are lost every year and more will continue to be lost. Archaeologists and those in the heritage sector are working to identify sites that are at risk, but there are only so many specialists and resources. Not to mention, sometimes sites are unknown, until coastal erosion exposes them – a double-edged sword, as these discoveries are often only accessible briefly before they are swept away or covered over once more. It is important that strong cultural heritage management practices are in place to help evaluate these threats now and into the future.
Coastal heritage sites have experienced devastation due to climate change/coastal erosion and it is only set to get worst. And these sites can be some of the richest, as the coast has always been favoured by humans for settlement because of their defensibility, transportation and access to resources and trade. In my mind (and in the minds of many academics in this field), these are some of the most dynamic “meeting places” (where ideas, goods and people interact). They are also dynamic in the forces that influence them, whether that is human intervention (urbanization/industrialization, deforestation, etc.) or environment (sea level rising, geological processes, etc.). Basically, between these complex dynamics, the coast is getting crushed by encroachment on land and the angry forces at play thanks to climate change.
And what is particularly stark and concerning when considering these forces are the disparities between large and small sites, those well known and those unknown (whether that be, the response, resources available, etc.). The St. Luke’s church site, as opposed to others with bigger audiences, is a site that does have a small community fighting for it (which is not the case for all, if not most sites). But even still, it does not have the resources it needs. This community is making do with what they have, but effectively, this heritage site and community are on their own. This fact is in stark contrast with world renowned cultural historic sites, like the Fortress of Louisbourg, which has ample resources allocated to its preservation (and it is a reconstruction of a historical site). This contrast, however, provides an excellent example of a site in Canada that is seeing the real-time effects of coastal erosion intensified by climate change. And have a well documented plan to combat the effects of climate change.
The Threat to the Fortress of Louisbourg
The Fortress of Louisbourg, as it stands today, is a massive reconstruction of the original 18th-century French Fortress that once stood on the same exact land. This project is in fact so large, that it is considered North America’s largest historic reconstruction. (If you’d like to learn more about the Fortress of Louisbourg and this major reconstruction project, take a peek here.)
Today, this Fortress may no longer be battered by battles, but it is still facing challenges of a violent sort. Scientists have determined that since Louisbourg’s initial construction in the early 18th century, the ocean has risen by a metre, making this site susceptible to coastal erosion and flooding. Because of this, Parks Canada, with the help of specialists like geologists, engineers and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have taken action to protect and preserve this site and surrounding sensitive land. Key to this has been the construction of a quay wall, that acts as a barrier between the Fortress and Louisbourg Harbour. This was done to help stop water from breaching the quay wall, which had previously had water breaking through, flooding not only the quay, but the reconstructed buildings at this site. So, Parks Canada rebuilt the quay wall, raising it by about a metre and reinforcing it with modern materials to better protect this heritage site from the increase of intense storms, the rising sea and coastal erosion.
But the quay was not the only area of concern. The nearby, Barrier Beach had also seen the effects of climate change/coastal erosion, with much of it being washed away by severe storms, leaving only a couple of metres of land separating the beach from the pond next to the Fortress, a key asset in the fight to protect the Fortress of Louisbourg. To protect this beach, and ultimately Louisbourg, the beach was restored by dredging material nearby and building structures that act as breakwaters (though, perhaps a discussion of methods for holding back the sea is a topic all its own).
And while action was taken to stop the progression and effects of climate change, namely coastal erosion, on this site, researchers have also been working to save associated aspects of this site that are still in situ (in the ground) and not yet significantly impacted by coastal erosion. On Rochefort Point, just east of the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, research and archaeological excavations have been ongoing to protect 300-year-old unmarked burial grounds. This site was first brought to the attention of archaeologists in 2006, when a violent winter storm washed away shoreline on Rochefort Point, which revealed evidence of a structure and eventually 45 bodies, believed to have been buried in a root cellar. From that point on excavations were carried out to protect this site from future threats of the rising sea level and coastal erosion. Experts saying that this Point is thought to have shrunk by about half of its “original size” because of coastal erosion. Eventually, once these remains have been analyzed, they will be moved and reburied at another burial site that will not be under threat from coastal erosion.
Though these forces have already affected the Fortress of Louisbourg, the serious risk posed to this site is still thought to be a distant one (though coastal erosion is unpredictable). Doing this work now allows for it to be conducted more respectfully and thoroughly. And still, many sites will be lost, both large and small (as we saw with St. Luke’s) – bringing up some significant questions…How do we determine what sites to save? Should some be left to “gracefully decay”? And, if we do have to decide which sites to save and which to leave (and we do), how will their value ever be measured? How can we creatively document these sites, especially those that will get left behind?
Places of historical significance are of physical importance, but intrinsically, they create a sense of identity and place. Wanting to know who we are and where we came from is a nearly universal desire. And quite simply, this is at risk. Dedicated individuals and organizations are fighting at various levels and on different scales trying to preserve what remains of cultural significance along eroding shores across Canada and indeed around the world. But we are running out of time. This is not just a problem affecting large, well-known sites, it’s affecting sites of all sizes and notoriety. And smaller sites that don’t necessarily have the money or public support suffer most of all.