The permafrost coasts of the Arctic make up 34 per cent of the world's coastline and represent a key interface for human-environmental interactions. These coastal areas provide essential ecosystem services, exhibit high biodiversity and productivity and support indigenous lifestyles. At the same time, Arctic permafrost coasts are a particularly heat-sensitive area. Rising air and water temperatures as well as increasing weather extremes leave clear traces here by thawing the ground, melting the protective sea ice and causing many cliffs to collapse. The consequences of this development are dramatic: coastal erosion is increasing, leading to a retreat of more than 20 meters per year on some stretches of coast in Canada. Flooding is increasing, coastal inhabitants have to be resettled and cultural sites and important infrastructure are lost.
Permafrost also contains vast amounts of organic matter that, when released through erosion, can directly impact coastal ecosystems or be transformed into greenhouse gases. The transfer of this material from land to sea can boost primary production in coastal waters and/or lead to the release of greenhouse gases, which in turn further fuel global warming. However, all of these processes are poorly understood and not accounted for in the global climate and Earth system, so further research is essential.
We tackle these issues and their implications in a holistic research framework involving researchers and local stakeholders in several communities along the Arctic coast. Our geographic focus is on the Inuvialuit community of Aklavik in northwestern Canada. In our research, we combine the capabilities of on-site measurements, observations from aircraft and satellite imagery, and use information from measuring instruments deployed from ships and from soil and sediment samples. We collaborate with scientists from around the world and from many different disciplines with the common goal of understanding the consequences of these dramatic changes for the physical, biological, socio-economic and cultural conditions of the Arctic coast.