Going, going, gone: Canadian Arctic faces threat of coastal erosion

By Maura Forrest, Arctic Deeply
Stefanie Weege, a scientist with the Alfred Wegener Institute, takes the GPS coordinates of the edge of a cliff at Herschel Island to be able to compare the data from different years and get the amount of retreat or coastal erosion. Photo courtesy of the Alfred Wegener Institute
Stefanie Weege, a scientist with the Alfred Wegener Institute, takes the GPS coordinates of the edge of a cliff at Herschel Island to be able to compare the data from different years and get the amount of retreat or coastal erosion. Photo courtesy of the Alfred Wegener Institute

Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Darrel Nasogaluak has an unusual problem.

As the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, a small Inuvialuit hamlet on the coast of the Beaufort Sea in the Northwest Territories, he has had to watch bits of his community wash away over the years.


Sometimes during a summer storm, he says, up to 15 feet of shoreline can disappear in a few days.

It's now gotten to the point where a few homes are so close to the water's edge that they're getting spray on their windows during those storms, he adds.

"We've lost a lot of shoreline in the past 25 or 30 years."

Coastal erosion is nothing new in the Arctic. But it's gotten faster in recent years, due to climate change. In some regions of the Beaufort Sea, more than 70 feet of coastline are lost each year.

This circumpolar map shows erosion rates. Map courtesy of Arctic Coastal Dynamics Database

The problem has attracted international attention in Alaska, where several coastal villages are considering relocation to escape the encroaching water.

In the Canadian Arctic, too, communities are facing tough decisions about how to protect homes and infrastructure from washing into the sea.

"We are losing ground," says Bill Beamish, Tuktoyaktuk's senior administrative officer. "There's no doubt about it."

Nasogaluak says a few buildings have been moved away from the coast in Tuktoyaktuk in recent years, but there are still five occupied houses that are right next to the shoreline, some of which house elders.

"I drive by there daily, and it's not something that you can get out of your mind, you know."

But moving them is easier said than done. Nasogaluak said the community is waiting on territorial and federal money to help pay for the relocation and to fortify the receding shoreline around the hamlet.

It's also waiting for gravel to help build up new lots for the houses. But that likely won't come until the summer of 2018, Nasogaluak says, when it can be trucked up the new all-season road under construction from Inuvik, 75 miles to the south.

In the meantime, the hamlet is working on a new official community plan, which will address the threat of coastal erosion.


Margaret Kralt, a professional planner with Dillon Consulting in Yellowknife, says the plan will zone certain high-risk areas as off-limits to development. Tuktoyaktuk isn't in a position where it needs to consider relocating the entire community at once, she says, but the process is happening gradually.

"Moving an entire community is not something that's inexpensive," she explains. "It takes a lot of money and energy."

Arctic coastlines have some of the highest rates of erosion in the world, and those rates are increasing as the climate warms.

That's partly because sea ice is forming later and melting earlier, exposing shorelines to heavy waves for longer. As permafrost melts, coastline that once was rock-solid is now starting to soften and wash away.

The permafrost "is really as hard as concrete, but when you thaw it, when you melt out the ice, then it immediately loses its cohesion," explains Michael Fritz, a German researcher who has studied coastal erosion on Yukon's Herschel Island for close to a decade. "So it's just falling apart, literally, and it all moves down-slope and is washed into the sea."

This graphic shows Arctic coastal erosion and its biological, geological and chemical impacts on the shallow water zone. Graphic courtesy of the Alfred Wegener Institute

Fritz and his colleagues published a paper this month in the journal Nature Climate Change, calling for more research into the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of Arctic coastal erosion. He believes the issue isn't studied enough because large research vessels avoid the shallow water where coastal erosion is taking place.

"If we don't invest more ... we will not be able to create knowledge or to mitigate the very abrupt changes that are happening right now," he says.

Fritz also says erosion research should take into account the traditional knowledge of local people who are witnessing the changes firsthand.

The Canadian government is putting some resources into measuring the rate of coastal erosion in the Arctic. For instance, Dustin Whalen, a physical scientist with Natural Resources Canada, has been using an aerial drone to take photos of the changing Beaufort Sea coastline. The goal is to calculate how much sediment is eroding each year.

"I think what's a great story about this is we're using a very cheap, innovative technology to map one of the most affected coastlines in the world ... in ways that we never were before," he says.

But those measurements may not help those who are dealing with the impacts of coastal erosion right now.


The ocean laps against a historic whaling building on Herschel Island. Photo courtesy of the government of Yukon

On Herschel Island, three of 12 historic buildings that formed a small whaling settlement at the turn of the 20th century were moved back from the water's edge, starting in 2003. Now their foundations have been raised above the water level and there are plans to lift the other buildings, too.

Barb Hogan, the manager of historic sites for the Yukon government, says it's possible the entire settlement could be moved to a new location inland at some point. But that wouldn't be an easy decision.

"There's a lot of things to consider if you move it into another area on the island. You've lost its historic context," she says, explaining that the settlement was built in a protected cove where whaling boats could anchor.

Instead, she jokes, the government might just lift the buildings up higher and let people paddle out to them. "It'll be the Venice of the north."

But these are real questions that will have to be answered. In Tuktoyaktuk, Nasogaluak's concerns stretch beyond the five houses now sitting on the edge of the water.


He worries about the harbor, which is currently protected by a long, skinny island less than 44 yards wide at its narrowest point. At current rates of erosion, the island could be breached within 20 years, which could allow big waves right into the harbor, threatening Tuktoyaktuk's hopes of becoming a deep-water port.

Bill Beamish says the harbor will also have to be redredged at some point, to remove all the sediment building up in the shallow water.

Still, the situation isn't desperate, says Nasogaluak. That's partly because the community has access to higher ground.

But it's also because the community is used to change, he says. Over the years, the police station and school have been moved inland when they had to be rebuilt.

"Our people have been adapting to change for the past 100 years or more, and I think that's an advantage for us, because we're a culture that's been changing so rapidly," Nasogaluak said. "It's part of our life right now."

Maura Forrest is a Canadian journalist based in Whitehorse, Yukon. This article originally appeared on Arctic Deeply, and you can find the original here. For important news about Arctic geopolitics, economy, and ecology, you can sign up to the Arctic Deeply email list.


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