Lasers are cool.

Lasers mounted on airplanes are even cooler.

Lasers mounted on airplanes and pointed down at small-town Nova Scotia are  scary?

But Timothy Webster isn’t an evil supervillain. Rather, he’s a mild-mannered scientist at the Applied Geomatics Research Group at the Annapolis Valley campus of the Nova Scotia Community College.

“I don’t get to ride in the plane very often with the lasers,” admitted Webster on Tuesday.

“I’m usually on the ground behind a computer.”

But what he sees on that computer, thanks to the lasers (known as “light detection ranging systems” in boring scientist speak), is rising tides  and sinking land.

You heard it here first (unless you’re a geologist, then you probably already knew it) — Nova Scotia is sinking at a rate of about 15 centimetres every century.

“You have to look at the Earth as a ball with the big weight of a glacier over Hudson Bay and Nova Scotia at the edge,” said Webster.

“Then remove that glacier and Hudson Bay rises up and Nova Scotia goes back down. That’s what’s happening.”

Meanwhile, according to historical data, the sea level has been rising about 30 centimetres every century around here for the past few hundred years as the world heats up and water expands. Melting glaciers also add a few more drops to the puddle as well.

A bit of simple math and you’ve got the ocean higher by about 45 centimetres in relation to Nova Scotia’s shore in the year 2113.

And that’s a conservative estimate using numbers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Some scientists predict we’ll see water levels 146 centimetres higher in relation to the land by 2113.

Now, presuming we’re not all living on Mars by then, that could be a problem.


The Lunenburg waterfront today. (Communications Nova Scotia)

So what Webster’s team has been doing with their lasers is developing highly detailed topographical maps of large areas surrounding Lunenburg, Yarmouth, Amherst, Wolfville and Windsor.

He then raises the sea level to both conservative and extreme estimates, and then — which probably does make him feel momentarily like a supervillain — recreates the storm surge of particularly ghastly historical weather whammies.

So for Yarmouth, it was the Groundhog Day storm of 1976.

It brought 190-km/h winds that tore the roofs off buildings and a storm surge that flooded much of the town near the water.

Now make that storm surge between 45 and 146 centimetres higher and you’ve got a mess.

Recreating the 1869 Saxby Gale at a high spring tide at the Amherst end of the Bay of Fundy in 2113 would see flooding cutting off Nova Scotia’s road and rail links with New Brunswick.

And for Lunenburg, Webster calculated how far a storm surge would extend into the town if a weather event the size of hurricane Juan were to hit the community 100 years from now.

“This isn’t even looking at the possibility that global warming could make extreme weather events more frequent,” said Webster, who presented his findings recently at the Fundy Geological Museum’s Rising Sea Level Conference 2013.

The conference, organized and hosted by the Parrsboro museum, brought together those studying sea level rise, coastal erosion and municipal planners attempting to prepare this province’s small towns.

“Several of us who have been travelling (and) working along (the Bay of Fundy shore) have been aware changes (are) occurring at the local level,” said Ken Adams, the museum’s director.

“With this conference we were seeking to go out and bring the people with the expertise to convey what is happening and share it with the general public.”

The tides won’t stop rising. Storms won’t stop coming.

And so, Adams expects many more such conferences to come as this province struggles to cope with the consequences of global warming.