An eroding cliff line along the coast of Canada's Herschel Island. Photo by Alfred Wegener Institute
POTSDAM, Germany, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- As temperatures warm in the Arctic, costal tundra is thawing, crumbling and falling into the ocean. It's a phenomenon researchers in Germany suggest deserves greater scientific attention.
In a new report published in the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists with the Alfred Wegener Institute call on the polar research community to undertake a systematic investigation of the effects of coastal erosion on biological systems in the shallows of the Arctic.
"A holistic and transdisciplinary approach is urgently required to investigate the physical and socio-economic impacts of collapsing coastlines in the Arctic nearshore zone," they wrote in the new paper.
The erosion is most obvious in the summer, as permafrost thaws. Trails of muddied water can be seen stretching a mile or more into the ocean. During the winter, the ice keeps the sediment intact, but as it melts in the spring and summer, the earth crumbles and slides down the seaside cliffs. The mudslides are carried into the sea by the waves, releasing nutrients and pollutants into the shallows.
"We can until now only guess the implications for the food chain," geoscientist Michael Fritz said in a news release. "To date, almost no research has been carried out on the link between the biogeochemistry of the coastal zone and increasing erosion and what consequences this has on ecosystems, on traditional fishing grounds, and thus also on the people of the Arctic."
In the new paper, researchers outlined the ways collapsed permafrost can affect coastal ecosystems. As the plant and animal matter is broken down, significant amounts of greenhouse gases are released. The released nutrients can also fuel algal blooms, creating low-oxygen zones. The addition of carbon can boost ocean acidity. Deposited sediment can also augment the topography of the seabed.
The research team responsible for the new report suggest all of these effects will be amplified as temperatures warm and as sea levels rise, pulling more sediment from the coastal cliffs.
"We believe that the erosion of the Arctic coasts will increase drastically as a result of rising temperatures, the shrinking of the protective sea ice cover, and the rising sea level," researchers concluded.