How the people — and horses — on Sable Island will hunker down for Hurricane Fiona

On a tiny slip of an island in the Atlantic Ocean — just a sandbar, really — a handful of people are preparing to weather a storm that, in satellite imagery, makes Sable Island look like a snowflake caught in a blizzard.

Three Parks Canada staff and one researcher will shelter in place on Sable Island, located about 300 kilometers southeast of Halifax, for the duration of Hurricane Fiona — laying low inside their lodgings to wait out a storm some have described as “a historic, extreme event .”

Much like mainland residents across the region, Parks Canada staff have been preparing for the storm for the past few days, securing any loose materials, powering generators, filling up vehicles and testing emergency equipment.

“The staff in general are really used to hunkering down and weathering out storms,” ​​says Mathieu D’Astous, acting park manager for the Sable Island National Park Reserve. “The assets there on the island have withstood that size of storm and greater in the past.”

D’Astous said mandatory evacuations would be issued if the hurricane was a Category 4, but the anticipated strength of Fiona means only non-essential personnel were required to leave.

Bright pink, orange and purple hues paint the sky as waves crash on the sandy shore of Sable Island in September 2022.
The sun sets on Sable Island before Earl arrives in September 2022. (Jennifer Nicholson/Parks Canada)

Power lines on the island are underground, so staff won’t have to worry about electricity going out. Staff will have satellite phones on hand and will give regular updates to colleagues on the mainland.

“However, due to heavy rain, thick cloud cover or shaking of satellite dishes, a loss of communications for a short period of time is expected,” said Parks Canada spokesperson Jennifer Nicholson in an email.

Wild horses will fend for themselves

Some of the island’s permanent residents, a colony of wild horses that has eked out its survival since the 1700s, will, as always, be left to their own devices.

While there are regulations in place to protect Sable Island’s horses from hunting or harm, including stipulations that no humans touch, feed or interact with them, those regulations do not include actively managing the population.

Horses walk through the sand on Sable Island, with a large sand dune looming in the background.
Sable Island’s horses will likely shelter in the lee of some taller dunes. (Sarah Medill/Parks Canada)

“The horses are quite resilient. They’re pretty tough,” D’Astous said. “Of course, if it’s cold and wet and windy, it can pose some challenge to them. But in general, they’ll be, you know, hunkering down as well and seeking refuge between or behind taller dunes.”

D’Astous said the horses tend to instinctively congregate during storms or cold winter winds and look out for each other.

Erosion, flooding possible

The delicate ecosystem of Sable Island, including its sandy beaches and dunes, will likely be affected by Hurricane Fiona, with erosion and flooding possible.

The sun rises above the grass and sand on Sable Island, with dark clouds covering half the sky.
The sun rises on Sable Island on a calmer day. (Sarah Medill/Parks Canada)

“Even smaller storms, depending on the wind direction and the amplitude and the tides, can chew up some dunes and have an impact,” D’Astous said. “You know, Sable, it’s really a very dynamic environment and so there will definitely be an impact.”

Staff walked around the island Thursday taking photos of different areas to have a basis for comparison after the hurricane.

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