The Arctic Coastline Is Falling Into the Sea

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CC BY 4.0. Coastline on Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, in the Canadian Arctic. (Photo: Noah Bell)

In 40 days over the summer, the coast had retreated by 14.5 meters, sometimes more than a meter a day.

"The Arctic is the most rapidly warming region on Earth," begins a new study just published in The Cryosphere. "Increasing temperatures result in fundamental changes to the physical and biological processes that shape these permafrost landscapes," the authors continue.

Fundamental changes indeed. The international team of researchers, led by the University of Edinburgh, flew drone-mounted cameras over a section of permafrost coastline on Herschel Island, also known as Qikiqtaruk, off the Yukon coast in the Canadian Arctic. What they discovered is enough to send chills down one's spine.

They mapped the area seven times over 40 days in the summer of 2017. They found that the coast had retreated by 14.5 meters during the period, sometimes more than a meter a day. (A meter is equivalent to 3.28 feet.)

Dr Isla Myers-Smith, of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences, who took part in the study, said that, "Big chunks of soil and ground break off the coastline every day, then fall into the waves and get eaten away."

Arctic coast

The Cryosphere/CC BY 4.0

Comparison with surveys dating from 1952 until 2011 showed that the rate of erosion in 2017 was more than six times the long-term average for the area, according to the University of Edinburgh.

This starling loss of land happens, the authors explain, as a warming climate leads to longer summer seasons. The University notes, "Sea ice melts earlier and reforms later in the year than before, exposing the coastline and presenting more opportunities for storms to cause damage."

The quickly transforming landscapes in the Arctic are obviously bad for the coastline itself, but the changes also threaten infrastructure that local communities rely on; important cultural and historic sites become threatened as well.

Study leader, Dr Andrew Cunliffe, currently of the University of Exeter's Geography department, says, "As the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of our planet, we need to learn more about how these landscapes are changing."

Arctic coast
Coastline on Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, in the Canadian Arctic. Jeffrey Kerby