Friday, July 1, 2011

Collapsing Arctic coastlines

Daniel Strain has a long, worth article in Science News on the impact of warming on Arctic coasts. It won't be pretty: Gray waves surged over miles and miles of open water, breaking against the bluffs underlying Kaktovik. The tiny village sits precariously on the Beaufort Sea, a frigid body of water bordering Alaska’s northeastern Arctic coast. As the choppy waters inundated vulnerable stretches of shoreline, the surf carved deep chasms into the tall bluffs.

Torre Jorgenson, a geomorphologist working near Kaktovik, watched the storm boil up, shaking homes and boats for nearly two days in July 2008. Dramatic erosion followed soon after. Blocks of graphite-colored earth, as much as 10 meters wide and several meters deep, toppled into the sea one by one like skyscrapers in a Japanese monster film.

“The locals had never seen that type of erosion,” says Jorgenson, also president of the U.S. Permafrost Association. “It was something new, a regime change.”

The erosion Jorgenson witnessed was a potent warning to Kaktovik’s residents of the instability of their coastal home. Seaside bluffs and beaches across the Arctic are inhabited by indigenous northerners — such as Inupiat living in Kaktovik — as well as clutches of plants and animals that thrive in the cold air. But these shores are mercurial, crumbling away bit by bit with each season.

As human-driven climate change progresses, many fear that the Arctic’s coastlines will begin to break apart faster than ever. That’s bad news for the region’s human and other inhabitants. In 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified 178 communities struggling with erosion in Alaska, three of which have perhaps a decade before collapsing completely....

Kaktovik, Alaska, also a DEW Line site for those of you in need of a Cold War shiver. Shot by US Fish and Wildlife Service

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