This is part one in the CBC P.E.I. series Changed by Fiona, exploring the impact the post-tropical storm will have on the Island’s people and industries moving forward.
For the people whose job it is to manage P.E.I.’s land and make policy decisions around trees, coasts and wildlife, post-tropical storm Fiona was a milestone event that changed everything.
When Fiona made landfall in the Atlantic Provinces on Sept 24, 2022, it was one of the strongest storms in Canadian history. On Prince Edward Island, the fierce winds knocked down millions of trees and the crashing waves eroded hundreds of kilometres of coastline.
With the arrival of spring, researchers and biologists are getting back outside to survey the damage and figure out what comes next.
“All our plans changed after Fiona,” said Kate MacQuarrie, director of the province’s forest, fish and wildlife division.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the province focused on safety on the land it managed, removing ill-placed piles of debris and clearing trees posing a public danger before winter came.
Only now are P.E.I. officials starting to shift focus from reaction back to planning for the future, fresh from Fiona showcasing the upper range of storms that could lie ahead.
It’s definitely kind of given us a little bit more reason to work, to push forward.— Genevieve Keefe, coastal erosion researcher
“We’ll start looking at, for instance, what do we do with some of our natural areas? Our recreational areas? Which ones need to be opened, which ones may not be?” MacQuarrie said.
“Just take a look at some of our longer-term management priorities and how they need to change in the wake of the reality that we now have.”
A microcosm of the change
MacQuarrie spoke to CBC News while standing in the Royalty Oaks natural area in the southern reaches of Charlottetown.
Despite now being surrounded by subdivisions, a church and a fast food restaurant, Royalty Oaks once stood tall as one of the last groupings of historic red oak trees.
Three centuries ago, such trees covered the ground stretching from Charlottetown clear up to the North Shore, but logging for shipbuilding, settlement and agriculture dwindled their presence to a few key areas like this one.
Here, Fiona took out trees that were up to 300 years old.
“The impact was severe at Royalty Oaks for sure,” MacQuarrie said, adding that she couldn’t begin to guess the number of fallen trees. “Anybody that’s familiar with the site will know that it looks very, very different today than it did prior to Fiona.”
The site used to have a trail through its centre, but that path is now indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor. The province has not made a decision about whether the trail will be cleared again.
That’s because Royalty Oaks is managed as a natural area, not in the recreational category as provincial parks would be. MacQuarrie said part of that forestry management philosophy is letting nature do its thing.
“The trees that are on the ground provide habitat for different types of wildlife than they did when they were standing,” she said. “It is part of the natural succession of these types of areas.”
Species like ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare, voles and mice will thrive in the post-Fiona landscape, MacQuarrie said, because there are more food sources and more nesting areas. Species like hawks and foxes may have a more difficult time, since their prey have better places to hide.
MacQuarrie said the predators may be inconvenienced — but their lives likely will not be put at risk.
“We do population surveys, so I’m not expecting that we’re going to see any major changes in the overall numbers provincewide of species,” she said.
But she acknowledges that the big-picture impact on wildlife may never be known.
Critical research to protect the land
Other questions posed after Fiona are difficult to answer, but some information about what happened along the coast is starting to emerge.
Masters and PhD students and post-doctorate fellows from around the world have been studying the storm’s aftermath through UPEI’s School of Climate Change and Adaptation.
“Most of our research [was] kind of switched to coastal erosion for P.E.I.,” said associate professor Xander Wang.
“This is really a big issue and a reality issue … especially after Fiona. It kind of serves as a trigger for people to look for solutions.”
Early results show Fiona damaged about five per cent of the Island’s coastal land cover. There’s also about 100 square kilometres of extended, new beach — muddy areas where chunks of land fell into the sea.
For researchers like second-year PhD student Tianze Peng, Fiona shifted the lens.
It’s very important to understand… the intensity and the frequency of hurricanes.— Quan Dau, climate scientist
“I thought my research [would] focus on the average or ordinary status, but Fiona — or the similar extreme storm events for the natural environment — [meant] a huge acceleration of the coastal change processes,” Peng said.
“I need to consider or compare the impact of extreme storm events and the ordinary status together to see the change or the processes of the coastline change.”
Little is known about what happened in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off P.E.I. during the peak of the storm. It was nighttime and the northern coastline was too dangerous to approach, given that emergency alerts were preparing some coastal residents for possible evacuation.
But Peng and his colleagues are working with models to figure out what happened. Based on satellite imagery and high-water lines measured on some local buildings, they believe the waves could have reared up as large as five metres — about 16 feet.
“A lot of people are asking about coastal erosion protection now that they’ve seen such a dramatic event like Fiona, so it’s definitely kind of given us a little bit more reason to work, to push forward,” said researcher Genevieve Keefe.
The PhD student examines how protective structures can help or hinder coastal erosion — a hot topic even before the storm because of controversial projects like the extended seawall at a site in Point DesRoches.
Her work and other projects will inform policy recommendations for the government that the school has been asked to provide.
The researchers said they are still four or five years away from tangible results, though.
“This is [a] very complicated area and people have been working on this kind of thing for decades. So it’s not necessarily a clear cut-and-dried answer for everybody,” Keefe said.
Other researchers are looking at whether these types of storms are getting stronger and more frequent in places like P.E.I.
“At some certain point, there could be another event,” said post-doctoral researcher Quan Dau. “For us scientists, it’s very important to understand what is the intensity and the frequency of hurricanes — and also, we want to understand what is the main driver that accelerate[s] the hurricane pattern in the future.”
Changes to P.E.I.’s landscape may seem shocking to people newly taking in the aftermath of the post-tropical storm, but back amongst the fallen red oaks, MacQuarrie said it also can be seen as nature doing its thing.
She said her background as a naturalist and biologist means she sees downed trees as change — not damage.
“Biologically, nothing is all good or all bad in the natural world,” she said.
“This is enhancement for some types of plants and animals and less so for other types of plants and animals.”
As she’s walking, MacQuarrie comes across a red oak tree that garnered a lot of attention when it fell in another storm 30 years ago. Now it is well along in the process of decaying into rich organic matter.
“It will take decades and sometimes centuries to get back into that soil, but it’s enriching the soil,” she said.
“In the meantime, it’s providing food for things like woodpeckers, a spot for all sorts of different fungi … It’s part of that natural cycle that’s so, so important.”