Preparing for Sea Level Rise on Graham Island, British Columbia

Created: 12/19/2010 - Updated: 3/02/2020


Graham Island is the most northern of the Queen Charlotte Islands and is located off the North Pacific coast of British Columbia. The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) has classified the northeast area of Graham Island as extremely sensitive to sea level rise, and two communities, Masset and Old Masset, are already experiencing flooding and coastal erosion. In response to this vulnerability, the Earth Sciences Sector of Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Institute of Planners co-sponsored a study to assess the human and biophysical vulnerability to climate change on Graham Island, as well as community resilience and adaptive capacity.


In 2004, the Earth Sciences Sector of Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Institute of Planners co-sponsored five case study communities to help build capacity at the local government level for planning for climate change. Three of these case study communities were already experiencing the effects of accelerated climate change impacts including rising sea levels and increased storm frequency and severity. 

Graham Island, also known as Haida Gwaii, is the most northern of the Queen Charlotte Islands and is located off British Columbia’s North Pacific coast. The northeast area of Graham Island, including the Masset and Old Masset Haida Nation Reserve communities, is highly vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. Extreme environmental conditions including substantial tidal ranges (~7 meters), intense wave action, storm surges, and strong winds are already impacting the northeast area of Graham Island (e.g., coastal erosion, flooding), and will likely increase with climate change.

The study area for the project was the Naikoon Peninsula on northeast Graham Island, which includes the Villages of Masset and Old Masset. The aim of the study was to assess human and biophysical vulnerability to climate change as well as the adaptive capacity of these systems. Specifically, research focused on community resilience and adaptive capacity to environmental and socioeconomic changes, as well as environmental sensitivity, resilience and impacts of climate change.


A team of researchers from the University of Victoria and the GSC conducted background scientific research to provide key information on biophysical and human vulnerability. Findings from this research included:

  • Average sea level has varied significantly in the past 10,000 years (e.g., it has been as low as 150 meters and as high as 18 meters above modern levels);
  • The current rate of sea level rise is more than 1.5 millimeters per year;
  • Erodible sediments, variable tidal range, wave action, and erosion make the northeast coastline highly sensitive to sea level rise;
  • East Beach is retreating at a rate of 1-3 meters per year (tens of meters in extreme years); and
  • North Beach is prograding at a much slower rate than the erosion at East Beach.

Using this scientific knowledge, researchers created a series of flood hazard maps based on future sea level changes; the maps show the extent of coastal and estuarine flooding along northeastern Graham Island. In addition, researchers collaborated with key community members (e.g., emergency and municipal planners, Haida elders, business owners, local residents) to assess regional vulnerabilities (i.e., human and biophysical) to climate change. Researchers conducted in depth interviews, held a community workshop and several community research forums to identify community attributes of vulnerability to climate change as well as local attributes of adaptive capacity in Masset and Old Masset. Attributes of adaptive capacity identified included:

  • A connection with nature and experience with environmental changes and hazards;
  • A high level of informal education and diverse skills;
  • Strong traditional knowledge and culture;
  • Solid community support networks;
  • A high degree of self-sufficiency;
  • Diversification of household income; and
  • A Land Use Plan agreement.

Outcomes and Conclusions

Final observations from the study included:

  1. Local knowledge is valuable in assessing the capacity of communities to adapt to climate change and for developing effective, long-term adaptation strategies.
  2. Geographically-remote communities are inherently vulnerable, but typically have the skills and experiences to make them resilient to natural hazards and community changes.
  3. Remote communities are more prepared to cope with short-term hazardous events (e.g., extreme storms), rather than gradual climate change impacts (e.g., sea level rise, accelerating erosion).

While attributes of community vulnerability and adaptive capacity were identified in this study, they were not assessed or measured. The next step will require further involvement of community members to evaluate vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity, and develop feasible adaptation strategies. Additional next steps could also include increasing public awareness of climate change risks and impacts, improving household emergency preparedness, and developing a community-wide emergency plan. Finally, this study lays the groundwork for developing evaluative tools and planning strategies that enable communities to make their own informed decisions about priority actions.


Last updated December 2010


Kershner, J. (2010). Preparing for Sea Level Rise on Graham Island, British Columbia [Case study on a project of the Canadian Institute of Planners]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated December 2010)

Project Contact(s)

Representing a membership of approximately 7000 planning professionals across Canada, the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) has been dedicated to the advancement of responsible planning since 1919.

The Earth Sciences Sector of Natural Resources Canada provides Canadians with the acquisition, interpretation, maintenance and distribution of maps, information, technology, standards and expertise concerning the Canadian landmass and offshore in the fields of geoscience, geodesy, mapping, surveying, and remote sensing.


Scale of Project
Community / Local
Sector Addressed
Development (socioeconomic)
Land Use Planning
Rural / Indigenous Livelihoods
Transportation / Infrastructure
Target Climate Changes and Impacts
Habitat extent
Infrastructure damage
Public safety threats
Sea level rise
Storms or extreme weather events
Climate Type
3-5 years
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy
Capacity Building
Design or reform institutions
Increase organizational capacity
Increase / Improve public awareness, education, and outreach efforts
Conduct / Gather additional research, data, and products
Conduct vulnerability assessments and studies
Create/enhance resources and tools
Governance and Policy
Effort Stage

Related Resources