skip to main content

Title: Coastal Permafrost Erosion
Since the early 2000s, observations from 14 coastal permafrost sites have been updated, providing a synopsis of how changes in the Arctic System are intensifying the dynamics of permafrost coasts in the 21st Century. Observations from all but 1 of the 14 permafrost coastal sites around the Arctic indicate that decadal-scale erosion rates are increasing. The US and Canadian Beaufort Sea coasts have experienced the largest increases in erosion rates since the early-2000s. The mean annual erosion rate in these regions has increased by 80 to 160 % at the five sites with available data, with sites in the Canadian Beaufort Sea experiencing the largest relative increase. The sole available site in the Greenland Sea, on southern Svalbard, indicates an increase in mean annual erosion rates by 66 % since 2000, due primarily to a reduction in nearshore sediment supply from glacial recession. At the five sites along the Barents, Kara, and Laptev Seas in Siberia, mean annual erosion rates increased between 33 and 97 % since the early to mid-2000s. The only site to experience a decrease in mean annual erosion (- 40%) was located in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska. Interestingly, the other site in the Chukchi Sea experienced one of the highest increases in mean annual erosion (+160%) over the same period. In general, a considerable increase in the variability of erosion and deposition intensity was also observed along most of the sites.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; more » ; ; ; ; « less
Thoman, R.L.; Richter-Menge, J.; Druckenmiller, M.L.
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Arctic report card
Page Range / eLocation ID:
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. null (Ed.)
    Observational data of coastal change over much of the Arctic are limited largely due to its immensity, remoteness, harsh environment, and restricted periods of sunlight and ice-free conditions. Barter Island, Alaska, is one of the few locations where an extensive, observational dataset exists, which enables a detailed assessment of the trends and patterns of coastal change over decadal to annual time scales. Coastal bluff and shoreline positions were delineated from maps, aerial photographs, and satellite imagery acquired between 1947 and 2020, and at a nearly annual rate since 2004. Rates and patterns of shoreline and bluff change varied widely over the observational period. Shorelines showed a consistent trend of southerly erosion and westerly extension of the western termini of Barter Island and Bernard Spit, which has accelerated since at least 2000. The 3.2 km long stretch of ocean-exposed coastal permafrost bluffs retreated on average 114 m and at a maximum of 163 m at an average long-term rate (70 year) of 1.6 ± 0.1 m/yr. The long-term retreat rate was punctuated by individual years with retreat rates up to four times higher (6.6 ± 1.9 m/yr; 2012–2013) and both long-term (multidecadal) and short-term (annual to semiannual) rates showed a steady increase in retreat rates through time, with consistently high rates since 2015. A best-fit polynomial trend indicated acceleration in retreat rates that was independent of the large spatial and temporal variations observed on an annual basis. Rates and patterns of bluff retreat were correlated to incident wave energy and air and water temperatures. Wave energy was found to be the dominant driver of bluff retreat, followed by sea surface temperatures and warming air temperatures that are considered proxies for evaluating thermo-erosion and denudation. Normalized anomalies of cumulative wave energy, duration of open water, and air and sea temperature showed at least three distinct phases since 1979: a negative phase prior to 1987, a mixed phase between 1987 and the early to late 2000s, followed by a positive phase extending to 2020. The duration of the open-water season has tripled since 1979, increasing from approximately 40 to 140 days. Acceleration in retreat rates at Barter Island may be related to increases in both thermodenudation, associated with increasing air temperature, and the number of niche-forming and block-collapsing episodes associated with higher air and water temperature, more frequent storms, and longer ice-free conditions in the Beaufort Sea. 
    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    Arctic coastal environments are eroding and rapidly changing. A lack of pan-Arctic observations limits our ability to understand controls on coastal erosion rates across the entire Arctic region. Here, we capitalize on an abundance of geospatial and remotely sensed data, in addition to model output, from the North Slope of Alaska to identify relationships between historical erosion rates and landscape characteristics to guide future modeling and observational efforts across the Arctic. Using existing datasets from the Alaska Beaufort Sea coast and a hierarchical clustering algorithm, we developed a set of 16 coastal typologies that captures the defining characteristics of environments susceptible to coastal erosion. Relationships between landscape characteristics and historical erosion rates show that no single variable alone is a good predictor of erosion rates. Variability in erosion rate decreases with increasing coastal elevation, but erosion rate magnitudes are highest for intermediate elevations. Areas along the Alaskan Beaufort Sea coast (ABSC) protected by barrier islands showed a three times lower erosion rate on average, suggesting that barrier islands are critical to maintaining mainland shore position. Finally, typologies with the highest erosion rates are not broadly representative of the ABSC and are generally associated with low elevation, north- to northeast-facing shorelines, a peaty pebbly silty lithology, and glaciomarine deposits with high ice content. All else being equal, warmer permafrost is also associated with higher erosion rates, suggesting that warming permafrost temperatures may contribute to higher future erosion rates on permafrost coasts. The suite of typologies can be used to guide future modeling and observational efforts by quantifying the distribution of coastlines with specific landscape characteristics and erosion rates.

    more » « less
  3. null (Ed.)
    Accelerating erosion of the Alaska Beaufort Sea coast is increasing inputs of organic matter from land to the Arctic Ocean, and improved estimates of organic matter stocks in eroding coastal permafrost are needed to assess their mobilization rates under contemporary conditions. We collected three permafrost cores (4.5–7.5 m long) along a geomorphic gradient near Drew Point, Alaska, where recent erosion rates average 17.2 m year −1 . Down-core patterns indicate that organic-rich soils and lacustrine sediments (12–45% total organic carbon; TOC) in the active layer and upper permafrost accumulated during the Holocene. Deeper permafrost (below 3 m elevation) mainly consists of Late Pleistocene marine sediments with lower organic matter content (∼1% TOC), lower C:N ratios, and higher δ 13 C values. Radiocarbon-based estimates of organic carbon accumulation rates were 11.3 ± 3.6 g TOC m −2  year −1 during the Holocene and 0.5 ± 0.1 g TOC m −2  year −1 during the Late Pleistocene (12–38 kyr BP). Within relict marine sediments, porewater salinities increased with depth. Elevated salinity near sea level (∼20–37 in thawed samples) inhibited freezing despite year-round temperatures below 0°C. We used organic matter stock estimates from the cores in combination with remote sensing time-series data to estimate carbon fluxes for a 9 km stretch of coastline near Drew Point. Erosional fluxes of TOC averaged 1,369 kg C m −1  year −1 during the 21st century (2002–2018), nearly doubling the average flux of the previous half-century (1955–2002). Our estimate of the 21st century erosional TOC flux year −1 from this 9 km coastline (12,318 metric tons C year −1 ) is similar to the annual TOC flux from the Kuparuk River, which drains a 8,107 km 2 area east of Drew Point and ranks as the third largest river on the North Slope of Alaska. Total nitrogen fluxes via coastal erosion at Drew Point were also quantified, and were similar to those from the Kuparuk River. This study emphasizes that coastal erosion represents a significant pathway for carbon and nitrogen trapped in permafrost to enter modern biogeochemical cycles, where it may fuel food webs and greenhouse gas emissions in the marine environment. 
    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Erosion along high-latitude coasts has been accelerating in recent decades, resulting in land loss and infrastructure damage, threatening the wellbeing of local communities, and forcing undesired community relocations. This review paper evaluates the state of practice of current coastal stabilization measures across several coastal communities in northern high latitudes. After considering global practices and those in northern high latitude and arctic settings, this paper then explores new and potential coastal stabilization measures to address erosion specific to northern high-latitude coastlines. The challenges in constructing the current erosion control measures and the cost of the measures over the last four decades in northern high-latitude regions are presented through case histories. The synthesis shows that among the current erosion controls being used at high latitudes, revetments built with rocks have the least reported failures and are the most common measures applied along northern high-latitude coastlines including permafrost coasts, while riprap is the most common material used. For seawalls, bulkheads, and groin systems, reported failures are common and mostly associated with displacement, deflection, settlement, vandalism, and material ruptures. Revetments have been successfully implemented at sites with a wide range of mean annual erosion rates (0.3–2.4 m/year) and episodic erosion (6.0–22.9 m) due to the low costs and easy construction, inspection, and decommissioning. No successful case history has been reported for the non-engineered expedient measures that are constructed in the event of an emergency, except for the expedient vegetation measure using root-wads and willows. Soft erosion prevention measures, which include both beach nourishment and dynamically stable beaches, have been considered in this review. The effectiveness of beach nourishment in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, which is affected by permafrost, is inconclusive. Dynamically stable beaches are effective in preventing erosion, and observations show that they experience only minor damages after single storm events. The analysis also shows that more measures have been constructed on a spit (relative to bluffs, islands, barrier islands, and river mouths), which is a landform where many Alaskan coastal communities reside. The emerging erosion control measures that can potentially be adapted to mitigate coastal erosion in high-latitude regions include geosynthetics, static bay beach concept, refrigerating techniques, and biogeochemical applications. However, this review shows that there is a lack of case studies that evaluated the performance of these new measures in high-latitude environments. This paper identifies research gaps so that these emerging measures can be upscaled for full-scale applications on permafrost coasts.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    The thawing of permafrost in the Arctic has led to an increase in coastal land loss, flooding, and ground subsidence, seriously threatening civil infrastructure and coastal communities. However, a lack of tools for synthetic hazard assessment of the Arctic coast has hindered effective response measures. We developed a holistic framework, the Arctic Coastal Hazard Index (ACHI), to assess the vulnerability of Arctic coasts to permafrost thawing, coastal erosion, and coastal flooding. We quantified the coastal permafrost thaw potential (PTP) through regional assessment of thaw subsidence using ground settlement index. The calculations of the ground settlement index involve utilizing projections of permafrost conditions, including future regional mean annual ground temperature, active layer thickness, and talik thickness. The predicted thaw subsidence was validated through a comparison with observed long-term subsidence data. The ACHI incorporates the PTP into seven physical and ecological variables for coastal hazard assessment: shoreline type, habitat, relief, wind exposure, wave exposure, surge potential, and sea-level rise. The coastal hazard assessment was conducted for each 1 km2coastline of North Slope Borough, Alaska in the 2060s under the Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5 and 8.5 forcing scenarios. The areas that are prone to coastal hazards were identified by mapping the distribution pattern of the ACHI. The calculated coastal hazards potential was subjected to validation by comparing it with the observed and historical long-term coastal erosion mean rates. This framework for Arctic coastal assessment may assist policy and decision-making for adaptation, mitigation strategies, and civil infrastructure planning.

    more » « less