Drones observe rapid erosion of permafrost coastline in the Arctic

An international team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, University of Exeter, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Alfred Wegener Institute and GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, flew drones for high-resolution surveys to observe erosion on Qikiqtaruk, (Inuvialuktun for Herschel Island), Canada.

06/24/2019 | 4:02 PM

Qikiqtaruk Territorial park is on the northern tip of Yukon’s Arctic coast. The researchers related the drone images to meteorological and oceanographic observations and revealed a sudden coastal erosion event. The research results are recently published in The Cryosphere.

Permafrost coastlines
The Arctic is warming faster than any other area on the planet. This has fundamental implications for permafrost coastlines which make up 34% of the Earth’s coastlines and enclose the Arctic Ocean. Increasing temperatures and earlier sea-ice melt result in a longer open-water season during which waves and storms attack vulnerable permafrost cliffs throughout the entire Arctic, which, currently, erode on average more than half a meter per year.

Shoreline retreat
With erosion, cultural heritage sites and modern infrastructure essential for local communities is threatened. Coastal ecosystems are impacted by carbon and nutrients washed from the once frozen permafrost into the sea.

During the summer of 2017 the team mapped an area of collapsing coastline over 40 days and revealed a shoreline retreat of 14.5 meter using image-based computer models. This rate is enormous and outnumbers earlier, decade-long, trends observed between 1952 until 2011 through comparison of satellite imagery.

Learn about changing landscapes
Dr. Andrew Cunliffe from the University of Exeter 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. Using drones could help researchers and local communities improve monitoring and prediction of future changes in the region.”

Dr. George Tanski from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam says: “Drone observations give a whole new dimension on how we perceive coastal change dynamics and how we can use this data to really understand the processes taking place in the coastal zone. The study shows how vulnerable the thawing coastline of the Arctic is to current environmental changes and how local communities can make use of drones to be prepared to those changes.”

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is highly involved in studies of coastal erosion in the Arctic.
A team around Dr. Jorien Vonk is currently leading efforts within the EU-Horizon 2020 project Nunataryuk to assess the environmental and physical effects of changing Arctic permafrost coasts. The project, that runs until 2025, aims at determining the impacts of thawing permafrost for climate and developing mitigation strategies for Arctic coastal communities.