An Analysis of Arctic Coastal Resilience in Response to Erosion

The current environment of the Arctic coastline is shifting. As global climate change continues, the Arctic is growing progressively warmer, and as continental and glacial ice melts, increased water makes its way to the ocean basins, causing sea levels to rise in a form of eustasy, or long-term variation in sea levels, which accelerates erosion.


The current environment of the Arctic coastline is shifting. As global climate change continues, the Arctic is growing progressively warmer, and as continental and glacial ice melts, increased water makes its way to the ocean basins, causing sea levels to rise in a form of eustasy, or long-term variation in sea levels, which accelerates erosion. Rising temperatures also lead to a decrease in the sea ice cover of the Arctic Ocean, which amplifies wave action during storms. As wave action and sea levels rise, along with increased storm frequency, the Arctic coastline is being heavily eroded, which poses a substantial threat to coastal communities. This coastal erosion may force entire towns to relocate, and is already necessitating numerous other coastal management projects. As sea ice retreats, shorter, more efficient trade routes are becoming viable which may lead to an increase in commerce along with other industrial interests. These industrial activities, namely hydrocarbon production, lead to the possibility of anthropogenic catastrophes that must be dealt with effectively in a new, untested environment. These changing factors combine to form a dynamic environment that has the potential to vastly impact the global environment as well as the global economy, requiring the implementation of environmental and industrial regulations as well as new forms of coastal management.

Physical Characteristics of the Arctic Coastline

The Arctic is a vast area, covering roughly 14,056,00 square kilometer, and 45,390 kilometers of coastline covered in features such as large ice-formed mounds called pingos, as well as large cracks called ice wedges (Godin et al., 2015). Under the soil is a layer of thick permafrost which, along with sunlight, regulates temperature — keeping an annual average of -12.6 degrees Celsius (Climate Information for Barrow, 2015). 

Figure 1: Thermokarst development south of Cape Halkett. 

Coastal sediments consist of mud, sand, and gravel that form large bluffs and move nutrients into the ecosystem when eroded (Oomittuk, 2015). Poor drainage is a major characteristic of the Arctic and leads to the formation of thermokarsts, or thaw lakes, as thawing permafrost forces water to the surface (Figure 1). The Arctic Ocean is also unique due to a large number of rivers and streams and melting sea ice which lower salinity with an average of 15.58 parts per thousand (Godin et al., 2015). Sea ice has lost 1.19 million square kilometers from 1981 to 2010 (NSIDC, 2015).

Arctic warming has had a large influence on the world’s oceans. The average surface temperature on earth has increased 0.8 degrees Celsius since 1880 (WWF, n.d.), increasing the rate of sea ice melt to 4.6 percent per decade (NOAA, n.d.). The decrease in sea ice increases storm severity on the coast making large erosion events more common and putting coastal towns at risk (Vermaire, 2013).

Ecological Characteristics of the Arctic Coastline The flora and fauna of the Arctic coastline are uniquely shaped by seasonal darkness and prolonged low temperatures. Contrary to the ecosystems of lower latitudes, marine species are limited in both biomass and diversity. Flora is limited to shrubbery, the most prevalent types being dwarf birch, willow, and northern Labrador tea (Arctic Coastal Tundra, n.d.). Biological productivity is limited primarily to the summer when abundant daylight allows vegetation to flourish. Twelve species of bird are present year-long, although many more migrate seasonally. Seals, including the harp and ringed seal, are prevalent, with predators such as the polar bear dependent upon them.

Relying on phytoplankton and zooplankton, are copepods: tiny arthropods in the water column, where they serve as a major food source for fish and seabirds (Laney, 2011). There are about 240 species of marine fishes, primarily demersal, in the Arctic (Hopcraft, 2009). A key fish species is the Arctic cod (Boreogadus saida), which serves as a crucial link between lower trophic levels and higher ones. Higher trophic level organisms, such as the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens), the polar bear (Ursus martimus), and various species of seals (such as Pusa hispida, Pagophilus groenlandicus, and Phoca largha), are indirectly dependent upon pelagic and benthic invertebrates. The rapid decline in sea ice over the past three decades has devastated both the polar bear and walrus populations, both of which are dependent on sea ice as hunting platforms. (Marine Ecosystem, n.d.). The Arctic ecosystem’s relative simplicity makes it sensitive to environmental disturbances such as climate change and increased levels of pollutants (Saundry, 2010).

Increased Human Presence in the Arctic

Coastal communities are faced with an ever-increasing threat: erosion. With the reduction of sea ice and the increase in sea level comes stronger waves and accelerated coastal erosion. With sea ice loss, trans-arctic trade will offer faster routes between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, drawing in increased industrial activity and population. The rapid coastal recession in coastal communities affected by human activity is of great concern to inhabitants, as well as active industries. As human presence in the Arctic increases, the importance of Arctic erosion will be amplified.

Shishmaref is a prime example of an Alaskan coastal community currently in crisis due to coastal recession. Shishmaref is estimated to have lost hundreds of square meters of land, making it likely that the township will be forced to relocate. Rising temperatures have caused reduced sea ice as well as coastal permafrost melt, rendering the town more vulnerable to erosion, as well as increasing storm activity, which further erodes their coastline (Hassol, 2015). The Army Corps of Engineers has compared aerial photographs of Shishmaref, estimating that the shoreline recedes on average 0.82 to 2.7 meters annually; however, years with major storm activity have seen losses of up to 6.9 meters. Shishmaref has already moved dozens of buildings further inland and has extended their now 853 meter sea wall (Sheppard, 2015). Shishmaref is currently at risk of needing an air evacuation in the case of a storm. Robert Iyatunguk, the Shishmaref’s erosion coordinator, explains that “The storms are getting more frequent, the winds are getting stronger, the water is getting higher, and it’s noticeable to everyone in town. If we get 12-14 foot waves, this place is going to get wiped out in a matter of hours. We’re in panic mode because of how much ground we’re losing. If our airport gets flooded out, there goes our evacuation by plane.”

The effects of coastal erosion are not limited to humanitarian interests; there is a financial reason to be concerned with coastal recession. Tuktoyaktuk is a Canadian port near the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Sixty percent of trade in the Northwest Territories goes through Tuktoyaktuk, a figure predicted to increase once Arctic sea ice has reduced enough to make the “Over-The-Top” route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans viable (Ruffilli, 2011). The infrastructure currently in Tuktoyaktuk would have to be expanded to accommodate increased trans-Arctic trade traffic, but doing so would further weaken the already receding coastline of the port town. Erosion in Tuktoyaktuk has threatened both cultural and archeological sites, as well as caused the abandonment of a school and residential areas. As global warming continues and sea levels increase, erosion could render Tuktoyaktuk uninhabitable, nullifying its potential as a major port city in the near future. Multiple attempts have been made at constructing lasting protection, yet these protective structures have not withstood storm surges (Hassol, 2004).

Industry is not only affected by coastal erosion, but also a causative agent in it. A prime example of how a site already affected by human activity is more susceptible to the effects of climate change is Varandei, a Russian oil storage facility on the Pechora Sea coast. Pechora Sea coasts are relatively stable, except in regions such as Varandei, where human activity — the facility’s construction and operation have caused the caused damage to the dunes and beach, accelerating naturally gradual coastal erosion. Because this location has been heavily disturbed by human activity, it is more vulnerable to storm surges. Melting permafrost, reduced sea ice, and rising sea levels will only serve to amplify the coastal erosion at locations such as Varandei, Shishmaref, and Tuktoyaktuk (Hassol, 2004).

As human presence in the Arctic increases in the near future due to the opening up of trans-Arctic trade, the problem of accelerated erosion caused by melting permafrost, reduced sea ice, and rising sea levels, will exacerbate. Heavy human activity has a negative effect on coastal resilience, especially to erosion due to wave interaction. Protective structures have frequently proven incapable of protecting coastal communities against the increasingly violent storms that buffet them and further erode their coastline. The problem of accelerated coastal erosion will threaten coastal communities as well as have a detrimental and possibly debilitating effect on industries in the region, primarily the oil and trade industries.

The Exacerbating Effects of Climate Change on Coastal Erosion

Along coastlines across the world, the dynamic forces of erosion continually mold and modify shoreline shape and structure. The shores of Alaska along the Arctic Ocean are no exception. Long-term variation in sea level, known as eustasy, is becoming more noticeable and has an increased influence on shore-ocean interaction. Depletion of sea-ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is leading to increased wave action as wind fetch transfers more energy into the ocean. The frequency and intensity of storms in the Arctic Ocean have risen dramatically in the past half-century (Hakkinen, 2015). This growing storminess means further erosion on Arctic coastlines as waves and wind wash away at the shore. Man-made remedies for erosion have been tried and tested around the world, with varying successes, and some are already being pursued in the Arctic, although it is too early to tell what will be most effective under Arctic conditions.

Around the world, ice deposits are melting and the water they contain is making its way into the ocean. The world’s land ice is disproportionately located in Antarctica and Greenland; as the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt, the water they contain flows into the ocean, raising worldwide sea levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states with supreme confidence that sea levels will continue to rise for many centuries beyond the year 2100. The IPCC also states with medium confidence that Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) by the year 2300 will rise less than 1 meter if CO2 levels are less than 500 ppm, and from one to four meters if atmospheric CO2 levels are between 700 and 1500 ppm (Gregory, 2013).

Projections for the future extent based on past sea ice (Table 1) indicate a continuation of the current decline in sea ice cover. Sea ice extent in the Arctic hit its all-time low in 2012, and the 9 least extents of Arctic sea ice cover have all occurred in the last 9 years (Gregory, 2013). According to mathematical regressions, sea ice will entirely disappear in the Arctic in the year 2042 at its period of least extent. Having no ice cover over much of the sea surface, fetch (the distance over which the wind blows across the surface) increases dramatically. Fetch, along with speed and duration, is one of the three primary factors determining wave height. As fetch grows over time, it increases the wave action as a whole. Stronger wave action leads to an increase in aggregate erosion. In addition to increased fetch, sea ice reduction lengthens the period of time each year in which the sea surface is ice free, allowing for a lengthened storm season. This means that the powerful winter storms often present in the region occur over open water and can lead to erosion that would not otherwise occur.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

(Millions of Square Kilometers )

2002 5.96



2004 6.05



2006 5.92



2008 4.73



2010 4.39



2012 3.63



Coastal erosion can lead to a number of problems onshore, for humans as well as for other ecological factors. As shorelines recede, they can threaten pre-existing human settlements and infrastructure. In the municipality of Barrow, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean, erosion is so prevalent that annual coastal replenishment operations take place, and erosion rates are estimated to be 31 centimeters of cliff, annually (USACE, 2011). In Kivalina, Alaska, coastal recession has come within 25 feet of the school, which, along with other structures is well within the reach of a single season of storms, necessitating erosion prevention programs as well as a planned $123.4 million relocation of the entire community (USACE, 2006). The small town of Shaktoolik, on Norton Sound between Unalakleet and Nome, is also suffering from rampant coastal recession. The portion of shoreline closest to the town sees erosion of around 2 feet per year and the town is expected to lose over 44 acres over the next 50 years, with multiple public buildings, including the school, at immediate risk.

Anthropogenic Catastrophes

In the last century, multiple hydrocarbon spills have had long term effects on coastlines around the planet. Dispersants, bioremediation, and physical methods of cleanup and all of their challenges play an important role in how the coastline recovers biologically and physically. Each of these methods has its own advantages and disadvantages and works under specific conditions.

One method of cleanup is through dispersants, chemicals used on top of an oil slick to break up oil particles and force emulsification. The purpose of a dispersant is to prevent the oil slick from reaching shore and harming surface organisms. (Dispersants, n.d.). However, this brings toxins, in both the oil and the dispersants, under the surface of the water. In the case of birds, dispersed oil damages the insulating properties of feathers which can be fatal in the Arctic. As for fish, dispersed oil has been shown to be toxic to all stages of life (Dispersants, n.d.). Another disadvantage of using dispersants is that the ability to skim the surface for oil is lost. Dispersants are also greatly affected by water temperature, mainly because as temperatures decrease, the viscosity of oil increases, which decreases the dispersants’ effectiveness (Figure 2) (Lewis & Dahling, 2007). Dispersants are ideal in cases where coastal contamination would be exceptionally detrimental or when the spill is small, however, they should not be used in cold temperatures or when damage to marine ecosystems can be prevented through other means of cleanup.

Figure 2: Correlation between viscosity and dispersant effectiveness.

A more promising potential treatment for catastrophic oil spills is the use of microbes to break down hydrocarbons found in crude oil, known as bioremediation or biodegradation. This process can be either natural decomposition that is subsidized with fertilizers, oxygen, called biostimulation, or the addition of microbes to the affected area, called bioaugmentation (Radermacher, n.d.). The vast majority of compounds found in crude oil can be biodegraded; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a class of over 100 chemicals, are some of the most toxic to marine organisms, but are also the most easily converted to non-toxic biomass (Atlas & Hazen, 2011.). The disadvantages of bioremediation include that for maximum efficacy, fertilizers must be added to create specific conditions that may have harmful environmental effects. The benefit, however, safe removal of toxins from the water column.

The most common methods of cleanup in the United States involve physical methods such as skimming and washing. Though booming methods can be the most effective and they do not bring any harmful substances into the water, washing can have adverse short and long term effects on coasts and the ecosystems that surround them. The method called booming or skimming controls the flow and movement of the oil and allows for the collection of the contained oil (Radermacher, n.d.). Round or Curtain booms are effective in rough water and are not susceptible to getting punctured by sea ice making them the most likely to be used around an Arctic coast. Once the oil is contained it can then be recovered through the use of a skimmer. In Arctic conditions, the most effective skimmer is the oleophilic, meaning “oil attracting”, skimmer (Nomack, 2010). High-pressure hot water washing, a process where oil is removed from beaches or hard surfaces, can be detrimental, to the coastal ecosystem. One example of these detrimental effects is the response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, where high-pressure water streams trapped oil under the surface of sand and pushed fine silt and sand off of the beach, not only contaminating the ecosystem, but also changing the physical structure of the beach. (High Pressure, n.d.). Physical methods of cleanup have a wide range of uses and have many advantages and disadvantages, but when applied correctly can be a reliable method of oil spill cleanup.

Action Plan

Globally, there have been numerous methods of erosion management implemented for varying goals and circumstances. Replenishment of sediments on the beach face is a general method that works with many forms of erosion, however, it is not a permanent solution and must be performed annually to be effective. For more specific scenarios, other structures and strategies should be utilized.

In the township of Barrow, on the northern coastline of Alaska, coastal nourishment is the primary management method, with sediment being brought in and deposited on the beach face. However, replenishment only delays the erosion and costs nearly $28 million over a decade (USACE, 2011). Erosion of the beach face causes bluffs above to be more susceptible to erosion as they are undercut by waves. One possibility for preventing the collapse of bluffs is cliff stabilization using wire cages and nets, as well as planting vegetation near the face. This could be applied to the cliff to prevent debris from falling onto the beach below to be washed away.

In the last 30 years, oil production has grown and the ramifications of oil spills have been surveyed. Oil production cannot be easily halted in the Arctic, and in addition to oil spill prevention, spill response must be explored. Despite the challenges that physical control, dispersants, and bioremediation present, they provide various options for response.

In the case of Arctic coastal spills, there are two methods that will counteract the effects of the oil spills on the coast both ecologically and physically: prevention and response. In order to prevent oil spills and thereby their effects, regulations on both transportation and extraction must be enacted. These regulations, such as the requirement for ships to not transport any amount of oil in poor weather conditions and for every ship to be double hulled, must be enacted. In order to better respond to spills and reduce the impact, guidelines must be created that dictate which response types to use in various situations. In the Arctic, dispersants and bioremediation are likely to be ineffective for cleaning the spill, although when conditions permit bioremediation could be used. This leaves physical methods of cleanup, and the most likely candidate for the job would be a round boom to contain the oil and an oleophilic skimmer to collect the oil.

These management policies, both to mitigate erosion and its effects, and to prevent oil spills and initiate effective disaster response protocols will pave the way for environmentally friendly development in the Arctic. They will pave the way for future interests as well as protect existing communities and infrastructure, as well as help preserve the unique Arctic coastal and marine ecosystems for posterity.


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An Analysis of Arctic Coastal Resilience in Response to Erosion

The current environment of the Arctic coastline is shifting. As global climate change continues, the Arctic is growing progressively warmer, and as continental and glacial ice melts, increased water makes its way to the ocean basins, causing sea levels to rise in a form of eustasy, or long-term variation in sea levels, which accelerates erosion.

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