(Mueller, 2007)

The Mi'kmaq and others living on the Magdalen Islands are experiencing drastic effects of climate change. They are experiencing increased flooding and erosion due to less sea ice and increased sea level rise. The effects they are feeling range from farming and fishing impacts, to economic issues related to flooding and damages caused by storms. More holistically, however, changes in hunting have impacted the tradition of sealing on the islands. Although sealing is no longer a vital part of food for inhabitants, it remains a culturally and historically significant practice. The loss of sea ice has drastically impacted inhabitant’s ability to partake in this practice. Cultural and Indigenous connection to traditional practices has been shown to promote respect and protection between communities for the environment (Druker, 2022). The physical impacts including farming, erosion, and flooding are causing ever-worsening challenges for inhabitants due to climate change. While the Magdalen Islands are not the only place being affected by climate change, it is clear that the impacts being experienced are significant and are likely to worsen. These conditions and impacts will continue to worsen worldwide if action is not taken to limit our greenhouse gas emissions.


Sea Level Rise

Since 1880, sea level has risen globally by approximately eight to nine inches (Lindsey, 2022). According to Mimura, there are many factors that contribute to global sea level rise, including:

  • Thermal expansion of sea water
  • Melting sea ice
  • Melting land ice (Mimura, 2013)

Increased melting adds water and large chunks of ice into the ocean, thus contributing to sea level rise.


(Koppiersperre, 2014)

(University of Hawaii, 2019)


There are three main causes of rapidly acidifying oceans in northern regions:

  • Melting sea ice directly acidifies water by increasing freshwater input (Popova et al., 2014). 
  • Melting sea ice indirectly acidifies water as decreased sea ice extent is strongly tied to increased carbon dioxide released and absorbed by water (Notz et al, 2016)
  • Colder waters are naturally more readily able to uptake carbon dioxide than warmer waters (UCUSA, 2019). 


Studies predict that by the mid to late century, the pH of the ocean could be as low at 7.7, leaving little room for additional carbon dioxide absorption (Steiner et al., 2014). It is unclear exactly when—or if—the world’s oceans will no longer be able to absorb carbon dioxide, but current acidification levels are causing harm to communities as is (Monroe 2013).



Since sea ice is bright and reflective, it reflects more sunlight away from the earth than open ocean or land; when this ice melts, it creates a positive feedback loop that enhances warming (NOAA, 2023; Popova et al., 2014).

Polar and northern regions in particular are warming faster than other places on Earth (IPCC, 2022). Due to this, sea ice melt season in northern regions has been extended by up to ten days due to earlier ice melt and later freeze-up (Stroeve et al, 2018). As these polar regions acidify and warm, sea ice becomes more unstable and melts off into the surrounding ocean, thus decreasing albedo and causing oceans to warm faster (IPCC, 2019).


(Tovarg, 2019)

(Rampancy, 2007)

Lack of precipitation

Rainfall in the Magdalen Islands on average was about 75 millimeters in the past; however, since 2014, the average has barely topped 31 millimeters (Page, 2017). Increased warming of the atmosphere in polar regions has contributed to dry spells in the summer (IPCC, 2022).

Irregularity of storms contributes to difficulties with food production and growth during dry seasons, especially in secluded island areas. Drier summers, colder winters, and irregular frost and freezing temperatures likely have already had an effect on global food production (Ray et al, 2019). As carbon dioxide levels and temperatures continue to rise, this will likely become more pronounced.



The impacts of these environmental changes are not felt the same by all communities. In general, the most exposed communities include:

  • Low-income
  • Rural
  • Low-lying/coastal areas (Lincke et al, 2018)

In low-lying areas prone to coastal erosion, the rate of sea level rise can be much greater than the global average (Lindsey, 2022). Rapid sea level rise and increased frequency, severity, and duration of storms and hurricanes associated with climate change creates huge risks for communities along coastlines, especially low-lying coastal areas and islands (Vitousek et al., 2017). 

Indigenous communities in the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are particularly susceptible to these climate change hazards and risks. This archipelago is a series of low-lying and fragile islands, made of rocky outcrops, soft sand spits, and erodible sedimentary rock (Climate Atlas, 2022; Dubois et al, 1996). Composed of about 13,000 people, this community relies on hunting and fishing (Climate Atlas, 2022). With the Magdalen Islands experiencing much higher sea-level rise than the global average (Barnett et al, 2017), the community on these islands is in jeopardy. It has a 1:5000 inland to shore ratio, making it extremely vulnerable and exposed to erosion by storm activity (Dubois et al, 1996). 



In addition, irregular rain patterns have caused trouble in their food production, both for the members of the community and for tourists and exportation that help to keep their economy alive (Page, 2017), enhancing the dryness experienced by farmers and their crops. This has affected farms greatly, as farmers have had to increase their use of water for irrigation purposes (Page, 2017). 

Sea Ice:

Sea ice formation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is strongly tied to ocean circulation and current patterns (Urrego-Blanco et al, 2014), and therefore the changing of this ocean circulation and temperature can cause an increase or decrease in sea ice. In the past, sea ice typically has been frozen up to the shore for between 70 and 110 days during the winter. However, recently, it has been frozen for many fewer days (Bernatchez et al. 2021). Sea ice protects communities from waves and wind, thus decreasing the amount of flooding and coastal erosion that is experienced (Cooper et al, 2022). Fewer days of frozen sea ice allows for high-energy storms and waves to reach the soft shores and eat away at them for many more days out of the year than in the past.

(Prokosch, 2015)


Biologically important species


While seals are no longer a staple food source on the Magdalen Islands, they continue to hold cultural importance and value (Canadian, 2023). Lack of sea ice affects the seal's ability to escape predators and raise their young. With the current ice conditions, sealing is struggling, and Indigenous people are beginning to lose their traditions that tie them to their culture and history. This sea ice melt can also be attributed to Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge of the surrounding area and climate is important for recognizing and responding to environmental changes (Lazrus, 2015; Friesinger et al, 2010). However, rapid ice melt and other sudden changes limit the relevance of Indigenous knowledge efforts (IPCC, 2019). The loss of this Indigenous knowledge shows a weakening of our connectedness to the environment (IPCC, 2019), and will create more challenges in the future when trying to curb these impacts.


(Mattews, 2013)

(Braun, 2017)


The Magdalen Islands have the largest fleet of lobster boats, and produce nearly 70% of Quebec’s shellfish (Climate Atlas, 2022). Disease occurrence in lobsters increases with increased water temperatures, as well as decreased prey availability (Couillard et al, 2023). Increased ocean temperatures have caused cold-water loving species—such as many lobsters and other shellfish—to move further north into new habitats and change historical fishing grounds and territories (Baag et al, 2021). Any small change in shellfish habitat around these islands could cause significant effects felt around Quebec and other cities.



The combination of increased storm waves, erosion, and sea level enhance the effects of flooding. Their main road is built on a narrow strip of land, and runs the entire way across the archipelago (Grescoe, 2022). Hundreds of structures and miles of road stand to be lost at the current flooding rate (Dennis, 2019). This not only would be costly and problematic for rebuilding purposes, but also put many people out of work indefinitely if places of employment are flooded or destroyed (Dennis, 2019). Roads are flooding, houses are getting swallowed, and infrastructure being destroyed due to both sea level rise and lack of sea ice to act as a cover to prevent large waves from reaching shorelines (Dennis, 2019).



The Magdalen Islands have many adaptation strategies currently in place, including:

  • Armored beaches
  • Sea walls
  • Embankments
  • Boulders
  • Drain outlets

In recent years, the community has been able to afford more adaptation measures than in the past. Historically, any adaptation strategies or structures had to be paid in full by owners and island residents. Some federal funding was provided if it was deemed an imminent risk to go without the adaptation. However, in 2006, a new framework was adopted by the Quebec government that provided more funding for preventative measures and adaptation (Friesinger et al., 2010).

Currently, there are two major ongoing adaptation projects to help the community curb the major issue the archipelago is facing due to climate change: erosion.


(Municipalité des Îles-de-la-Madeleine, 2021)

La Grave

The first major project is happening at La Grave. The protection of this historical site and major tourist attraction in the archipelago is at the front of residents’ minds (Friesinger et al, 2010). This project consists of adding 35,000 cubic meters of gravel onto beaches and directly offshore to promote breaking waves farther out instead of on beaches and houses. Additionally, this project aims to add beautification measures—children’s parks, benches, etc.—to maintain the beauty and tourism to this area (Municipalité des Îles-de-la-Madeleine, 2021). By increasing the depth in front of beaches and structures, studies have shown that wave breaks can be pushed back to protect the shore (Mimura, 2013).

(Municipalité des Îles-de-la-Madeleine, 2021)


The second major project is taking place in the major economic heart of the island, Cap-aux-Meule. This project involves depositing large amounts of gravel to create a lifted embankment to raise the beach 4.1 meters. This will act as a barrier for the breaking waves to help protect the soft, erodible cliff that lie between Cap-aux-Meule and the ocean. This embankment is predicted to last for up to 30 years, and a repair is scheduled for this year (Municipalité des Îles-de-la-Madeleine, 2021).


Lack of geoscience data and other weather-predicted measures limits the resilience of the Magdalen Archipelago communities (Friesinger et al, 2010). Many of the hard structures employed—such as sea walls and beach armoring—have been shown to decrease resilience to future climate events, as they would contribute to further beach erosion in front of the structures (Friesinger et al, 2010). In order to find more effective ways to increase their resilience, the more research will need to be done to find the most effective strategies. This could be funded by tourism, as it is seen as a prestigious destination and one of the main sources of income for the archipelgao (Lapointe et al, 2021). If TEK can be preserved in the Magdelen Island community, resilience can be increased against ecological disaster and rapid change; this coupled with novel technologies can help to restore sources of social-ecological resistance (Gómez-Baggethun et al, 2013).


About the Author

Maggie Wenger graduated from St Lawrence University with a degree in Environmental–Biology and a Computer Science minor in May of 2024. She was a competitive swimmer and co-captain of the varsity swim team at her university. She has a strong interest in aquatic ecology, environmental policy, and sustainable development.


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