From Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge, by Edward Struzik. Copyright © 2015, Island Press.
In the summer of 2000, Canadian national park warden Angus Simpson and his colleagues were camped along the north coast of the Yukon Territory near the Alaskan border, conducting a survey of archeological sites along the coast. The sea was dead calm at the time. But they could see in the inky blue sky over the Beaufort Seas the telltale signs of a storm advancing. An hour or so after they turned in that night, the first big gust of wind blew in, completely flattening their tent and forcing them to take refuge in the cubbyhole of their boat.
It was just the beginning of a summer storm that some people in the western Arctic of Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories remember as the worst they had seen before the Great Cyclone of 2012 ripped through the region. At the height of this gale in 2000, dozens of Inuvialuit people camped on low-lying land along the Arctic coast had to be airlifted out by helicopter. The park wardens, exposed on the same stretch of low lying tundra, were forced to make a harrowing trip through 12-foot high waves to get to the safety of a ranger station that was located on Herschel Island a few miles away.
Simpson and his colleagues would have gladly stayed put at Herschel Island had it not been for an emergency satellite telephone call from an American rafter who was all alone and in distress at the mouth of the Firth River, which flows out of Alaska into the Yukon. The entire spit of land he was camped on was quickly being submerged by high waves and a storm driven surge of seawater. Throwing caution to the wind, Simpson and his colleagues steered their boat into the high seas that night to rescue him.
I remember the storm well because I was on the north edge of this weather system helping biologists find peregrine falcons and rough-legged hawk nests along cliffsides on the Arctic islands. When the storm hit us, we were camped on a sandy stretch of tundra. Short-lived as this storm was, it came with deafening claps of thunder and blinding flashes of lightning. Unaccustomed to violent electrical storms such as this one, dozens of muskoxen grazing in a valley nearby stampeded in one direction and then another, not knowing where the threat was coming from.
The winds whipped up so much sand that visibility was reduced to just a few feet. Looking more like warriors in a desert storm than birders on the tundra, it was all we could do that first night to prevent our small tent camp from being blown away. It was miracle that not one of the bird nests we found in the days that followed had been destroyed.
The storm of 2000 got its start off the coast of Alaska on August 10th. Sustained wind speeds of 56 miles per hour were followed intermittently by gusts that reached 65 miles per hour and more. It came on so suddenly that emergency management teams in the town of Barrow, Alaska didn’t have time to build protective berms before it hit.
At Barrow, the winds sunk a dredge barge, tore off the roofs of 40 buildings, washed out a boat ramp, and caused $7.7 million in damage, which would have amounted to much more had the region been more populated.
By the time the storm had finished ripping through the coastal regions of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, it had completely flooded the historic whaling settlement on Herschel Island, swept several archeological sites along the coast into the sea and left the Inuit community of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories ten meters closer to dropping off into ocean due to the erosion it caused on shore. A state visit to the Inuit community of Sachs Harbour by the Queen’s representative in Canada had to be cancelled. The Governor General was, instead, forced to hunker down for a night in the small Inuit community of Holman on Victoria Island.
Severe summer storms like this that cause considerable damage have been relatively uncommon in the western Arctic because of high pressure and sea ice that lingers long into the summer season. With so much heat being reflected back into the atmosphere, there was not enough open water in the past to produce the moisture needed to grow cyclones with any degree of consistency.
This promises to change as the Arctic Ocean becomes seasonally ice-free. In the “New Normal” that is opening up new pathways for killer whales and Pacific salmon to move into the Arctic, rising temperatures and disappearing sea ice are also fueling storms that used to be triggered later in the fall months.
With little or no sea ice to buffer the shoreline, storm driven surges are extending their reach several miles inland, flooding communities, killing wetlands, and accelerating the thawing of permafrost that is already eroding riverbanks and coastlines.
Climatologist Steven Varvus isn’t convinced that the era of storminess in the Arctic is here just yet. But in a recent study that he and his colleagues at the Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published in 2013, they used historical climate model simulations to demonstrate that there has been an Arctic-wide decrease in sea level pressure since the 1800's. “Simulated trends in Arctic mean sea level pressure and extreme cyclones are equivocal,” says Varvus. “Both indicate increasing storminess in some regions, but the magnitude of changes to date are modest compared with future projections.”
If the recent past tells us anything about an increasingly stormy future, it’s that hell comes with high water. One relatively modest storm in 1970 sent a surge of water several miles inland, killing two men who were doing maintenance on a navigation tower on the Mackenzie River in Canada. Another in the summer of 1944 tore a large strip off the shoreline of Tuktoyaktuk at the mouth of the Mackenzie delta. Two men who were there that day watched in amazement as the Transport office next door to them moved once, then twice, before the surge of seawater sent the building sailing at “an even keel past the wharf and over to the island.”
One of the men expected the stovepipe in the floating building to give a “cheery whistle” before the warehouse hit the island and broke up into a hundred pieces.
“You can’t imagine the scene,” the Hudson Bay Company employee wrote. “Diesel oil drums, gas drums, coal oil drums, full and empty crashing around and floating away, dogs, board walks, wharf and lumber, all going, water pouring into store and warehouse and into the house, the two of us trying to do a hundred jobs at once and getting desperate. The water was 12 inches deep in the warehouse, store and dwelling house. We had an inch rope round the house, between house and store the water was almost waist deep.”
The difference between now and then is that rising sea levels, sinking coastlines and receding sea ice have the potential to transport storm driven surges even farther inland than they have gone before, sending saltwater into places where it can cause catastrophic damage. The effects range from killing tundra plants and freshwater ecosystems to accelerating erosion that is washing the land out from under native communities. Understanding how bad these storms are likely to get is key to understanding a significant element of both human and wild existence in the Future Arctic.
Surges occur when winds blow over a long fetch of shallow water. The force of these winds entrains the top mass of the water column and hauls it towards shore. These surges can get particularly nasty when they occur at high tide in shallow water along low-lying coastal regions such as those in western Arctic of North America and Arctic Russia.
In cases such as these, water being dragged towards the shorelines cannot descend to greater depths before it hits the coast. With nowhere else to go, it is forced up onto the land as a flood or large waves. This is what happened when Hurricane Sandy struck the northeast coast of the United States in 2012. It wasn’t so much the winds that caused the estimated $50 billion in damages, it was the 12-foot surge of water that swept inland flooding subway lines, airport runways and more than 650,000 homes.
In the lowest lying parts of the western Arctic that are no more than six feet above sea level, this water can travel much farther than Sandy’s surge. Three storms that struck the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska in 2005, 2006 and 2011 resulted in flooding that extended 30.3 km. 27.4 km and 32.3 km inland. Another that swept twenty kilometers into the Mackenzie Delta in 1999 killed more than 13,000 hectares of vegetation
Damage from that surge in 1999 was unlike anything seen on this part of the Arctic coast in the last thousand years. Scientists found that more than half the alders dried up within a year of the surge. Another 37 per cent of what remained shriveled in the salty soil over the next five years. A dramatic increase in the salt-loving algae—Navicula salinarum—in one inland lake suggests that the freshwater environment affected by the flooding has moved into a new and much less productive ecosystem trajectory.
“Much of it is still a dead zone,” says scientist Steve Kokelj.“ The saltwater intrusion changed the chemistry of the lakes and the soil in a very fundamental way. What little has come in to replace it is nothing like what was once there. We didn’t get a chance to assess the impact on wildlife but local Inuvialuit hunters tell us that both moose and geese are no longer using the areas to the extent that they did in the past.”
The storm surges that swept into the Mackenzie and the Yukon-Kuskokwim deltas may be considered extraordinary now, particularly for the length of their reach, but such storms are bound to become more common as sea levels rise, storms pick up steam— and as the western Arctic continues, literally, to sink. Unlike western Hudson Bay which is rebounding from the heavy weight of glaciers that compressed the landscape for tens of thousands of years, the more lightly glaciated regions of the western Arctic of Canada, Alaska and Arctic Russia are sinking at a time when sea levels are rising.
In the past, sea ice that prevailed long into the summer season protected these low lying Arctic shorelines from the full impact of these surges. Offshore floes, for example, shorten the length of those fetches of water that are necessary for the top mass of the water column to build momentum. Closer to shore, land fast ice and the Stumukhi ridge often blunted the force of big waves.
The presence of sea ice could be one of the reasons why that storm surge in 1970 didn’t cause more damage than it did. Scientists who reconstructed events that led up to the storm noted that pack ice, which covered one tenth to more than half of the ocean 20 kilometers seaward, may have accounted for the relatively small nine foot high waves that were observed.
The impact of all this relatively warm, salty water coming onto shore is exacerbated by the fact that 50 to 70 percent of the soil along western Arctic coastlines consists of frozen water — a “dirty iceberg,” as geomorphologist Robert Anderson of the University of Colorado at Boulder describes it. Once it comes into contact with the warmer water, it falls apart and slips into the sea.
Anderson and other researchers believe that as the Arctic Ocean becomes increasingly ice-free, storm surges will affect ever-larger areas of shoreline in the Arctic basin, including Russia’s immense Arctic coastline, which stretches many thousands of miles.
Frank Günther, a scientist with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, has been, in association with German and Russian colleagues, investigating the causes of the coastal breakdown in Eastern Siberia. In 2013, he and his colleagues reported that summer temperatures that have risen dramatically have exacerbated this breakdown. Between 1951 and 2012, for example, temperatures in the region exceeded the freezing point an average of 110 days. In 2010 and 2011, they did so 127 times. In 2012, the warmest year on record in the Arctic, it happened 134 times.
Over the past two decades, the number of ice-free days averaged 80 per year. In 2012, there were 96 ice-free days that significantly accelerated the erosion that is already taking place.
Günther predicts that sometime within this century, the island of Muostakh, which is east of the Siberian harbor town of Tiski, will break up into several sections and then disappear altogether.
Even now, hundreds of thousands of tons of plant-animal, and microorganism-based carbon are washed into the sea along every mile of eroding coastline each year. These are materials that had previously been sealed in the permafrost. Günther and his colleagues predict that this accelerated erosion will have an impact on the chemistry of the Arctic Ocean. Once in the water, carbon may turn into carbon dioxide and, as a result, contribute to the acidification of the oceans.
In Arctic Canada and Alaska, the story is much the same. Benjamin Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey, recently found that a stretch of coastline he had been monitoring in Alaska had retreated an average of 6.8 meters per year between 1955 and 1979. Over the next 23 years that rate increased by 28 percent. The low-lying coastline of Alaska that he was studying was losing 13.6 meters of land per year between 2002 and 2007 and 25 meters between 2008-2009.
The impact of this is being exacerbated by rapid permafrost thawing that is occurring farther upstream along big Arctic rivers such as the Yukon and Mackenzie. Steve Kokelj and his colleagues have documented monumental slumpings of river banks in the Peel River that flows from the Yukon into the Northwest Territories into the Mackenzie. The collapse of these shorelines changes both the chemistry of the rivers and the shoreline soils in a way that may be lethal to fish and favorable for invasive plants species tat are migrating north and overtaking some tundra ecosystems.
All this has implications for Inuit communities as well as Arctic ecosystems. Several years ago in 2006, when I accompanied the late Canadian coastal geologist Steve Solomon in the field, he brought along a computer model that simulated what would happen to the town of Tukotyakuk if a powerful storm, such as one that occurred in 2000 hit the community in 2050 when sea levels will be higher. Not only would a future storm like that flood many parts of the community, it would sever almost all access to the airport if an evacuation were required. It would also put the community’s freshwater supply in peril.
The prospects for Alaska are even more serious because there are many more communities at risk. The U.S. Army Core of Engineers, for example, estimates that at least 60 coastal and river villages in Alaska face erosion problems that will cost several hundred billions of dollars in engineering costs to mitigate. The most famous of these is Shismareef, a native community of 625 Inupiat people who have become what some journalists have described as “climate change refugees,” even though they have not yet been forced to relocate.
Often portrayed as community on the “front line” of rising sea levels and coastal erosion, the island is losing 1.5 to 3 meters of coastline each year and as much as 30 meters in years when powerful storms sweep in.
Over the years, there have been several attempts to shore up the town. In 2004, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) installed 200 feet of protection along the shoreline near the Native store. The following year, the Corps installed 230 feet of protection, connecting to the BIA project, extending to the east to protect the Shishmareef School. That same year, the community of Shishmareef installed about 250 feet of protection extending to the east from the Corps project.
The latest plan to save the community is estimated to cost $25 million. The investment, however, won’t be providing long term returns. According to Army Core of Engineers, the “complete failure of useable land” in Shismareef could occur in less than ten years; at best, the community has 25 years left in its current location.
Other than curbing greenhouse gas emissions, there are not a lot of solutions to the erosion problems that coastal and river communities face. Governments can either spend a lot of money on engineering solutions, or they can relocate the communities to higher, safer sites. In Shismareeef’s case, relocation would cost, by one estimate, $183 million.
As practical and cost-effective as relocation may be in the long term, it is a sensitive issue for many indigenous people, especially for those who come from families that were forced into exile in the past. As the relocation of Inuit to Ellesmere and Cornwallis islands in Arctic Canada has shown, these relocations either ended badly or with lasting repercussions.
The practice of relocating Arctic people got its start at the turnoff of the last century when both whalers and fur traders used alcohol, tea, tobacco and trinkets to lure Eskimos, Inuit, the Nenet and Chukotkans to more manageable trading centres.
Willing to move as many of these indigenous people may have been at the time, they suffered the consequences. Initially, it was disease and alcoholism that ravaged their numbers. Then, when the whalers and fur traders left, leaving various Arctic regions with greatly diminished wildlife populations, a number of communities had to be abandoned.
In the ensuing decades, the relocation of indigenous northerners became far more systematic and draconian. In Arctic Russia, whaling and walrus hunting villages were uprooted to make way for mines and military bases and to supply cheap labour for state-run reindeer farms, fishing collectives, mines and transportation projects. Invariably, families were split up and children were sent to residential schools, often against the wishes of the parents. Many of them never came back.
The Canadian and Russians weren’t the only ones who forcibly relocated indigenous northerners. In Greenland, the Danish government relocated several Inuit communities in the 1950s for various reasons. The entire village of Thule, for example, was moved 60 miles to the north in 1953 to make room for a U.S. military base.
This pattern in public policy decision-making continued for decades. Whenever sovereignty, security and economic priorities came into play, environmental integrity and the cultural interests of indigenous people in the Arctic invariably suffered.
The failure to sufficiently inform and collaborate with indigenous northerners was one of the reasons why a plan to relocate the people of Aklavik in the Mackenzie Delta to a new modern Arctic town (Inuvik) failed, in part in the 1960s. Severe erosion, flooding and sewage problems made relocation to a completely new town seem like a good idea to federal government officials at the time. Residents of Aklavik, however, only heard about the proposal on the local radio after it was a done deal. Remaining true to a “Never Say Die” motto, many of them refused to leave when it was time to go. Since then, the people of Aklavik have suffered through several more devastating floods. And still, no one wants to leave.
They are, however, not blind to the threats and challenges that climate change brings. Several years ago, the community embarked on a project that sought to find out what climate change effects elders and hunters were seeing first hand on the land and on the water. Those who responded noted that the spring melt was occurring earlier and the fall freeze up much later. They reported seeing lots of moose in the delta but fewer caribou. Caribou, they thought, were having a hard time finding food. Most everyone agreed that the weather was much harder to predict.
Local initiatives such as this have gone a long way in getting indigenous northerners to trust scientists and decision-makers. In Old Crow, a small Gwich’in town in the northern Yukon, the Vuntut people recognized some time ago that climate change threatened their very existence. Caribou were on the decline, some bird species were dwindling or disappearing and many of the 2,500 lakes in the Old Crow Flats were drying up or changing chemistry. To find the answers to the many changes that they were seeing, community leaders opened the door to hydrologists, permafrost and wildlife scientists to work with them to find the answers.
Many of those answers, however, aren’t coming quickly enough, in part because government funding for Arctic research in North America is in relatively short supply compared to what is available in countries like Norway and even Germany. Increasingly, observing systems, which are few and far between in the Canadian Arctic, are being automated. This means that there are less people on the ground actually making observations. This also means that while data is being collected from a very few sites, it is not necessarily being analyzed.
Important work is still being done by organizations such as The Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research which focuses, in part, on the implications of climate change on indigenous people living in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. But in most cases the Canadian government is choosing instead to focus on economic development rather than on the long-term threats that climate change is presenting to communities and ecosystems.
In spite of the fact that the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk is sliding into the sea, for example, more than $300 million is being on an all-weather road to connect the community to the south. By one of the government’s own accounts, the economic benefits to the community will be modest - $1.5 million in transportation savings and estimated $2.7 million annually in tourism dollars.
The biggest return on investment will go to energy producers who stand to save $385 million in transportation costs over a 45-year period if a natural gas pipeline is built along the Mackenzie Valley.
Both the road and the pipeline have environmental implications that extend beyond the right-of-way. In the event that $16 billion natural gas pipeline is built, Imperial Oil and Shell Canada, two of the pipeline proponents, have plans to develop the Taglu and Niglintgak gas fields in the Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, which is nesting ground for many of the more than 100 species of migratory birds present in the Mackenzie Delta.
No more than five feet above sea level, the sanctuary is already vulnerable to sea declines, Arctic storms surges and the lingering effects of seismic lines that were cut in the past. Even industry concedes that extracting gas from the sanctuary, which resource companies are allowed to do in Canadian bird and wildlife sanctuaries, will make it even more vulnerable as land subsides after the natural gas is pumped out. One study suggests that as much as 1,200 hectares of bird habitat will be lost irrespective of what happens when sea levels rise and Arctic storms pick up steam.
The sum of $300 million that is being invested in building the gravel road to Tuktoyaktuk, would have gone a long way towards funding research to answer many of the so-called questions that are emerging in the western Arctic as sea levels rise, storms pick up steam and permafrost thaws. But instead of investing in the future, the Canadian government continues to reduce the budget for Arctic science. In 2012, it ended funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which had doled out more than $100 million in research funding over the past decade. And in spite of committing to the construction of a new Arctic Research Station, it has eliminated funding for a program that helps keep more than a dozen existing Arctic science research stations operational.
That funding is not likely to recover from what critics across the political spectrum say is an unprecedented assault by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on environmental regulation, oversight, and scientific research. Harper, who came to power in 2006 unapologetic for once describing the Kyoto climate accords as “essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.” Harper has steadily been weakening environmental enforcement, monitoring, and research, while at the same time boosting controversial tar sands development, backing major pipeline construction, and increasing energy industry subsidies.
Invariably, Canadian government scientists I tried to talk to about climate change in the Arctic were unable to share their research because they are not allowed to talk to the media. Those who were willing did so from home telephone numbers and on the condition that they not be quoted. Bad as this was, it got even worse when the Canadian government sent out handlers at the International Polar Year conference in Montreal to make sure that Environment Canada scientists didn’t talk to the media unless government representatives were on hand to monitor what they said.
Canada could learn a lesson from the U.S. where the North Pacific Research Board and the National Science Foundation invested $52 million between 2007 and 2012 to support more than 100 scientists who studied a range of issues in the Bering Sea, The scientists looked at everything from atmospheric forcing and physical oceanography to the impact that changing ecosystems are having on humans and the economy.
More recently, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and university scientists have launched several initiatives to better understand the impact of Arctic weather and changing climate on communities, migratory bird habitats and on mid-latitude zones of the United States, where weather extremes have become common in recent years.
In 2014, for example, NOAA launched a five-year plan to improve management and stewardship of Alaska’s marine and coastal resources, provide better sea ice and weather forecasts and work with international organizations such as the Arctic Council.
The USGC has embarked on several initiatives that aim to determine rates of coastal erosion on a decadal basis; the frequency and magnitude of storm surges; the effects of salt-water intrusion on permafrost and fresh water wetlands, and the likely impacts of these environmental impacts on birds and wildlife.
Craig Ely, a USGS wildlife biologist, who has been conducting bird studies in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is, by way of example, trying determine which species in the delta could be winners and losers in a climate change scenario. If the losers become threatened or endangered, he says, then measures could be taken to limit subsistence and sports hunting or to find ways of safeguarding the most critical habitats.
In some ways, the roadmap to the future is being paved by the work that the three Landscape Conservation Cooperatives in Alaska are doing. In each case, local communities are working with scientists to develop and apply an ecosystem models that are capable of forecasting how landscapes might change as the climate heats up. Scientists like David McGuire of the USGS/University of Alaska Climate Science Centre are looking at everything from coastal erosion and glacial retreat to tundra and forest fires, and how they may affect hydrology, species migration, treeline advance, and vegetation changes.
Theoretically, these ecosystem models will help land and resources managers, subsistence hunters and coastal communities make the kind of informed decisions when it comes to building roads, homes, pipelines, mines, and airport runways or fighting fires and establishing catch and bag limits for fish wildlife species.
Looking at the big picture and what’s at stake, it’s not a big investment. It is costing Canada $300 million to build a road to Tuktoyaktuk. It is costing Northwest Boreal Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the U.S. Geological Survey, Alaska Climate Science Center, and the Western Alaska Landscape Conservation Cooperative a little less than $3 million to create and operate the Integrated Ecosystem Model for Alaska from 2010, the year it went into the pilot project phase, and 2015. The project will have additional funding to carry it through to its end in August 2016.
Time to do something, of course is running out. Rapidly unfolding events in the Arctic will soon overwhelm the ability of decision-makers to do anything meaningful about rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and powerful storms that are extending their reach father and farther inland. Not only is the Arctic heating up faster than climate modelers previously predicted, it is opening the door to oil and gas development and commercial shipping that will further complicate the situation.
The problem is that governments are by nature, risk averse, except perhaps when it comes to promoting oil and gas developments in the Arctic. The road to Tukoyaktuk may crumble as the permafrost beneath it thaws in the coming years, but the pipeline will have likely been built by that time. In contrast, seawater intrusions that come with storm surges will destroy communities and wetlands in which millions of bird nests, From both an economic and environmental perspective, it makes better sense to invest a modest amount now to avert or deal with more costly crises in the future.
From Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge, by Edward Struzik. Copyright © 2015, Island Press.