Phootgraph by Johan Hallberg-Campbell, National Geographic
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This cemetery, located at the 165-year-old St. Anne’s Church, is so close to the water that it’s endangered by storm surges and rising seas. On Lennox Island the dead were never buried with whole possessions, but with broken ones. The idea was they would be made whole again when they reached the other side. Now the aboriginal community’s dead are at risk of being washed into the sea.

Phootgraph by Johan Hallberg-Campbell, National Geographic

As Sea Level Rises, These People Show Us How to Cope

A tiny island off the Atlantic coast is shrinking as the climate warms and the seas rise. But its indigenous people aren’t waiting for global help: They’re taking action now.

Update, Feb. 23, 2016: Sea level is rising faster now than at any time in the past 2,800 years , according to research released this week . The people of Lennox Island are some of the first to see their land washed away by rising seas—and they’re responding with urgency and ingenuity. 

Wearing clean white cotton gloves, Gilbert Sark carefully unwraps papers containing artifacts from his ancestors. An eel spear. An arrowhead. A flint. Many of these ancient treasures, now housed at this aboriginal community’s cultural center, have been collected from the beaches, where the dissolving coastline scatters them on the sand.  

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A house on Lennox Island off Canada’s Atlantic coast sits so close to the shoreline that its occupant, Dave Haley, worries that storms and erosion will sweep it out to sea. During a severe storm five years ago, the water lapped at his door. “Today our high tides have become almost like a storm tide. The water is higher, our low tides have become like our regular high tides, so things have changed,” he says.

“When our artifacts start popping up on the shore because of erosion, I ask myself: ‘What’s one of the major things erosion comes from?’ Higher water table, high storms. And where does that come from? Global warming,” says Sark, who, at 36, is considered an elder of this community.

The Mi’kmaq, among the original inhabitants of Canada’s Atlantic provinces, have lived on Lennox Island, slightly north of Prince Edward Island, for thousands of years. Shaped and sustained by the rhythms of the sea, the island’s low-lying sweep of red sand is now being swallowed up by the cold waters of Malpeque Bay. Along with it, the island’s archaeological record is being swept away.

WATCH: On Lennox Island, off the north coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada, the Mi'kmaq are leading the world when it comes to adapting to climate change.

A generation ago, the island was 1,300 acres; today, it is 1,100. Once, all of its 79 homes–clustered at the southernmost tip, the island’s high point–were comfortably set back from the beach. Today 10 of them are perilously close to the shoreline as the sea reclaims land.

Islands like this always are naturally vulnerable to the sea. But now climate change is melting glaciers and warming the ocean. Sea levels rise. Tides reach farther. Storms, rainfall, and waves are fiercer. Ice cover comes later in the winter, and melts more quickly, robbing the shores of their frozen protection.

All this is happening so fast that the Lennox Island First Nation’s leaders have decided they cannot wait for the rest of the world to take action and cut carbon emissions to stave off the effects of global warming. The island’s 400 residents already are taking steps now to adapt--by both looking backwards and ahead.

They’ve launched an “archaeological rescue” of their most important site, a shell midden--actually an ancient garbage pile--that documents the life of people who for millennia used an adjacent islet as a fishing camp.

While they are racing to save their past, they also are preparing for their future: They are commissioning the latest computer simulations to project what the island will look like as the forces of the sea and the wind eventually submerge it.

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A sewage lagoon on Lennox Island filters the community's waste. Only three feet above sea level, the lagoon is a multi-million-dollar piece of infrastructure that would be destroyed by a strong storm surge.

To weather their drowned future, they also need a good dose of gallows humor: One resident jokes that she’s going to start taking her lifejacket to bed with her.

While the fate of low-lying island states, largely in the Pacific, captured the spotlight at the United Nations climate talks in Paris last week, equally vulnerable but lesser-known communities like Lennox Island have quietly begun developing their own solutions to the changing climate.

“We are an adaptable and resilient people and we will figure this out,” says Matilda Ramjattan, Chief of the Lennox Island First Nation.

Small and Getting Smaller

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We are an adaptable and resilient people and we will figure this out.
Matilda Ramjattan, Chief of Lennox Island First Nation

Lennox Island is tiny–not much bigger than New York City’s Central Park. A brisk stroll would take you around it in three and a half hours.

Driving to the north side of Lennox Island requires nonchalance about one’s paint job plus the willingness to insult an axle or two. The road is partly frozen at this time of year, rutted with ice as it meanders through a naked forest of spindly white birch, poplar, and maple. The bony fingers of the trees reach out to claw the car.

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Dave Haley, the community’s property manager, drives past the pow-wow grounds that abut the unmarked graves of earlier generations of Mi’kmaq, so low-lying that they flooded during a bad storm in 2010.

Then it’s onto the sacred site of the ancient starwheel ceremony, where modern Mi’kmaq elders, clad in white, contact the spirits of their ancestors in a tightly choreographed nighttime ritual. The once-a-year ceremony was banned by the church for nearly a century. Haley’s chest puffs out slightly as he describes his role a few years ago in helping to find the perfect spot for the rite to recommence. Like so much of life on this island, the timing of the ceremony is governed by its elders.

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“Two years ago, the shoreline was over here,”  says resident Dave Haley, pointing 15 to 20 feet from where it is now.

This part of the island is uninhabited, threaded through with miles of nature trails that follow the paths of Mi’kmaq ancestors, and acres of wild blueberry patches. Both are money-makers for the community -- the first a tourist’s dream and the second an expanding farming operation.  

At the snow-fringed north shore, the dense wet sand is scourged by the tide, rust red against the brilliant blue of the sky. The sense of peace is palpable. It feels as though time has stood still, that this corner of the planet must always have been just this way.

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St. Anne’s Church, built in 1885, is close to the coastline, which has been shored up with rock so that the graves do not wash out to sea. The community worries that the church and graveyard may have to be relocated.

Not so. Haley, bundled in his black coat with a cap rolled above his ears, wades out into the bracing water, pointing off in the distance. It’s known as Hog Island, a long thin spit of red sand. The spit is the island’s secret weapon, protecting it from the riotous force of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But it is breaching, Haley says, occasionally allowing the gulf waters to break through.

To the west, just visible, is George Island, where the dig under the direction of Helen Kristmanson, the province’s director of aboriginal affairs and archeology, takes place on the few days a year that the weather, the wind, and the mosquitoes allow. Known as Pitawelkek, which means “a place where they make tea,” it shows thousands of years of continuous aboriginal occupation. Some of the artifacts have been radiocarbon dated to about 2,300 years ago.

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The sea wins, eventually.
Adam Fenech, Climate scientist

It, too, is vanishing, being reclaimed by an inexorable ocean. The archeological team is trying to remove and preserve the abundant evidence of early pot-making, stone-sharpening, and family feasting as quickly as scientific propriety will allow.

Haley turns around, wading back toward Lennox Island, still pointing.

“Two years ago, the shoreline was over here,” he says, gesturing. That’s fully 15 to 20 feet from where it is now.

Information Is Power

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Lennox Island boys attended an early December Christmas party, where Chief Matilda Ramjattan and the community hand out gifts every year.

Most people here on Lennox Island didn’t feel tightly connected to the climate talks in Paris even though the Alliance of Small Island States, a coalition of low-lying and coastal nations, is highlighting the very same issues Lennox Island is facing.

Haley rolls his eyes when asked whether the UN talks will help his community. “No!” he says, pursing his lips. “I think it’s a little too late.”

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Haley rolls his eyes when asked whether the UN climate deal will help Lennox Island. “No! I think it’s a little too late.”

The island coalition members insist that the world must hold global average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. They also say that wealthier countries should financially support nations sinking as a result of past greenhouse gas emissions. Both controversial concepts were included as goals in the final Paris agreement.

Ramjattan is taking another tack. Since she was elected chief two years ago, she has welcomed help from the Mi’kmaq Confederacy, which represents the province’s aboriginal peoples, to plan for the travails ahead. So far, the confederacy has commissioned 10 scientific studies on the effects of climate change, and is planning another on the effects of ocean acidification.

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Leaders of the Lennox Island community are trying to save their ancestors’ artifacts from threats posed by rising seas. "Archeological resources are finite. You can't recreate them once they're gone. The information is lost forever,” says Helen Kristmanson, director of aboriginal affairs and archaeology with the government of Prince Edward Island. On the Hog Island site, she has found evidence of ancient people making cord-wrapped-stick ceramics that were then decorated. The oldest artifacts she has dated are about 2,300 years old.

Ramjattan’s community is used to taking matters in its own hands. In 1999, after Canada’s Supreme Court recognized the Mi’kmaqs’ historic right to participate in commercial fishing in the Atlantic Canadian fisheries, Lennox Island rolled up its sleeves. Today, it boasts the only lobster processing plant in Canada owned by aboriginals and is studying the idea of establishing a shellfish hatchery. The lobster and other fishery enterprises make up the bulk of the Nation’s income.

While there’s a temptation for some to panic–or crack jokes–at their sodden future, most residents are instead turning to highly detailed scientific information to plan for their future.

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“I've seen very noticeable erosion of the shoreline here,” says Lennox Island resident Angus Sark. “I know at the end of the day you end up losing against Mother Nature. Over the years you just keep losing and losing and before you know it is just right up to the house.”

Ramjattan unrolls large maps produced by the climate research lab at the University of Prince Edward Island, up the road in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. She pores over them. One shows which parts of Lennox Island will be swamped as the sea rises or surges in heavy storms as much as three meters (9.8 feet). Another shows coastal erosion to the end of the century, based on historical rates rather than those enhanced by climate change.

Her finger traces along the road where Haley lives, just five feet above sea level. His home would be in the sea.

“I’ll be scuba diving,” Haley says.

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Lennox Island “is a tough place to be. It's a beautiful place to be. I love all the seasons, even the winter when the bay freezes solid,” says community property manager Dave Haley. “We've had as much as 18 feet of ice out here. Lately, though, the bay hasn't frozen and that means more storms, more erosion because the water is pushing the ice up against the shore. A lot of the elders talk about how it was, and it's not like that anymore.”

Research by the University of Prince Edward Island climate lab shows that land loss will only get worse as sea level rises faster and erosion intensifies. At great risk are its only bridge to the province of Prince Edward Island and its sewage lagoon, both just above sea level. Fortifications won’t help.

“The sea wins, eventually,” says Adam Fenech, director of the climate lab.

Ramjattan and her council know that this whole community will be under water at some point. They’ve been scouting out parcels of land across the bridge on Prince Edward Island where people could relocate. They’re trying to decide whether to move the most vulnerable homes, and whether it’s safe to invest in more blueberry fields and forestry on their island. They have opted to leave the cemetery where it is, which means supporting the shoreline directly underneath it with three layers of rocks, a bid to keep the cliff from slumping and spilling the graveyard onto the beach.

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This bridge is the only way on and off Lennox Island by car or by foot. A storm surge in 2010 flooded the bridge and cut the island off from the rest of the coast. After that storm, the bridge was reinforced. But if the water rises several feet, it will be under water.

“But this will always be home to people,” Ramjattan says, fiercely. “People will still make the trek back to see the remnants.”

It’s that kind of attitude that convinces Anthony Charles, director of the school of environment at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, that the community of Lennox Island will survive even if the land does not.

Other communities pull together in a similar way. He points to the Clayoquot First Nations of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, which are designing a string of programs to lessen the impact of climate change, particularly on the salmon fishery. Reforming fishery planning, diversifying food sources by planting gardens and preserving food, and shoring up infrastructure that could be damaged by storm surges are all underway there.

Then there is the community of Punta Allen, nestled on a Caribbean peninsula in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Residents have developed sustainable fishery methods to capture spiny lobster, even as ocean conditions and sea level are changing, and they’re teaching them to neighbors.

Charles says there are thousands of other at-risk cultures taking equally sure steps. He can envision a world where the strength of that communal spirit infuses the international climate talks, accelerating efforts to curb carbon.

Back at the cultural center, Sark is carefully putting away the tools and pots his ancestors created so long ago, rewrapping them in their papers. Theirs was simpler technology, not like today’s far vaster knowledge. He can’t understand why it’s taken world leaders so long to harness all of today’s technology to tackle climate change.

“We can do all this stuff, send things halfway around the world,” he says. “You’d think we would find a way to fix what we broke.”