06 Jun 2011: Report

As Arctic Sea Ice Retreats,
Storms Take Toll on the Land

For millennia, the blanket of ice covering the Arctic Ocean protected the shore from damaging storms. But as that ice buffer disappears, increasingly powerful storm surges are eroding the coastline and sending walls of seawater inland, devastating Arctic ecosystems that support abundant wildlife.

by ed struzik

In the summer of 2000, Canadian 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. With little warning, a powerful storm blew in, driving a surge of water from the Beaufort Sea onto the land and forcing Simpson’s group to make a harrowing trip through 12-foot high waves to get to safety on Herschel Island, a few miles off the coast.

At the height of the gale, Inuit families camped on low-lying land along the Arctic coast had to be airlifted out by helicopter. Inuit elders said the storm was one of the worst they had ever seen: The historic whaling settlement of Herschel Island was flooded, several important archeological sites along the coast of the Yukon and Alaska were swept into the sea, and the Inuit community of Tuktoyaktuk was 10 meters closer to dropping into the ocean.

The gale and the wall of water that swept over the low-lying land along the Yukon shore were typical of a growing phenomenon in the Arctic, one with important environmental and social implications: As Arctic Ocean ice disappears and waves build over ever-larger stretches of open water, the Arctic coastline is being buffeted by more intense gales that are driving storm surges onto the land and into freshwater river deltas. Among the consequences are not only the accelerating erosion of Arctic coastline, but the destruction and transformation of parts of some freshwater ecosystems because of saltwater intrusion.

A recent study conducted by Benjamin Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey found that a 40-mile stretch of Alaska coastline along the Beaufort Sea
One stretch of Alaska coastline lost 28 feet of land per year between 2002 and 2007.
retreated an average of 6.8 meters (22 feet) per year between 1955 and 1979; over the next 23 years, that rate increased by another six feet per year. The low-lying coastline then lost 28 feet of land per year between 2002 and 2007, and 45 feet between 2008 and 2009. These extreme losses are due not only to greater exposure of the land to storms from an increasingly ice-free Arctic, but also to melting permafrost that hastens crumbling of the coastline.

A study published last month showed another insidious impact of the growing number of Arctic storm surges. Canadian scientists researched the effects of a massive surge of seawater from the Beaufort Sea that in 1999 pushed 12 miles inland along the Mackenzie River delta in Canada’s western Arctic, flooding lakes, streams, and hundreds of square kilometers of tundra vegetation. The effect of that influx of seawater into the delta transformed the affected areas, killing nearly 90 percent of the alders, which shriveled in the now-salty soil. In addition, scientists documented a dramatic increase in a salt-loving algae — Navicula salinarum — in one inland lake, suggesting that the freshwater system affected by the flooding was being transformed into a new, more saline ecosystem.

John Smol, a biologist at Queen’s University in Ontario and co-author of the paper on the Mackenzie River delta, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said that “where there was once an abundance of freshwater species, there is now only those that can live in sea water.” The Inuit say that the so-called dead zone has become inhospitable territory for the caribou, muskoxen, and freshwater shore birds that traditionally grazed and nested in this region.

According to Smol and his colleagues, the impact of this surge of water was unlike anything seen in the last thousand years.

“Much of it is still a dead zone,” says Smol. “It 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. In my mind, this is a bellwether of things to come in the Arctic now that climate change is accelerating. As sea levels rise, permafrost thaws, and sea ice melts, Arctic
‘Arctic storms are increasingly going to take their toll on larger and larger tracts of land,’ says one expert.
storms of the future are increasingly going to take their toll on larger and larger tracts of land.”

To date, the surges have been most intensely felt in northwestern Canada and northeast Alaska, where winds blowing over ice-free water in the summer can create large storm surges. These surges are particularly bad in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and parts of the Bering Sea because of the shallow water there. The water being pushed towards shore has to go somewhere. If it is deep, the water can simply descend to greater depths when it nears the coast. If it is shallow, however, the water is forced up onto the land.

The impact of this relatively warm, salty water coming onto shore is exacerbated by the fact that 50 to 70 percent of the soil 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. “No other coastal landscape in the world is as vulnerable,” says Anderson, who has a research camp on the north coast of Alaska between Barrow and Prudhoe bays. “From the western Arctic of Canada to the north slope of Alaska and Siberia, the landscape is very flat. When you fly over this territory, you can see how even the smallest surges can have an impact when there is little or no sea ice.”

A History of Surges

Storm surges have hit the Arctic coastline throughout recorded history. Scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks reported evidence of 90 storm surges, some as high as 13 feet, on the west coast of Alaska from 1898 to 1980. The big difference now, however, is that the surges are becoming more frequent and intense as the rapid loss of sea ice alters the physics of storms and wave action in the Arctic Ocean.

The farther away the pack ice is from shore, the greater the distance of open water over which the wind can blow, which is known as fetch. That means that more energy is transferred to the water, creating larger waves.
The situation is expected to worsen considerably if sea levels rise by 3 to 6 feet this century.
“The greater the fetch,” says storm surge modeler David Atkinson of the University of Victoria in Canada, “the greater potential for a surge.”

In addition, notes Atkinson, land-fast sea ice protects the coastline from surges. And the less ice floating on the ocean, the more opportunity for the wind to transfer its energy to the water, since floating ice tends to absorb wave energy. “No floating ice equals no wasted energy,” says Atkinson.

The situation is expected to worsen considerably if, as many experts project, sea levels rise this century by as much as 3 to 6 feet as ice sheets and glaciers melt.

The impact of storm surges and wave action on coastlines in the western Arctic is now being well documented. Anderson, for example, has seen signs of surges sweeping onto the tundra and killing the vegetation. What concerns him even more is the coastal erosion threatening thousands of freshwater lakes and river deltas lining the western Arctic shoreline. As the thin strips of land that separate the coast’s freshwater lakes from the Arctic Ocean disappear, many of these lakes are draining into the sea.

“I am not a biologist, but it doesn’t require a lot imagination to see how all those geese and ducks that we see flying to the Arctic each year to nest on these tundra lakes will be affected,” says Anderson.

It’s not just geese and ducks, or muskoxen and caribou, that are vulnerable. Eskimo communities such as Shismareef in Alaska will likely have to be relocated for similar reasons, as little can be done to stop those coastal communities from sliding into the sea.

Mackenzie delta surge
Trevor Lantz/University of Victoria
Ten years after the Mackenzie River delta surge, the soil was still contaminated by high salt concentrations.
The impact of the 1999 surge on parts of the Mackenzie River delta is a sign of how Arctic coastal ecosystems could change as the sea and storm surges work their way inland. That surge was the largest yet documented in Canada’s western Arctic; Smol says it is probably a sign of things to come.

He and colleagues from Queen’s and Carleton universities collected tree ring samples from live, stressed, and dead specimens at 10 sites in the flood zone. They found that more than half the alders dried up within a year. Over the next four years, 37 percent of the remaining trees were killed by the salty soil. Ten years after the surge, high salt concentrations still contaminate the soil. And an examination of sediments from inland lakes showed a pronounced shift in the affected area from a freshwater to a saltwater ecosystem. These striking changes in vegetation and wildlife were first noticed by the region’s Inuit, who brought the situation to the scientists’ attention and helped them conduct their research.

Comprised of 45,000 shallow lakes, the Mackenzie Delta is one of the largest and most productive freshwater Arctic deltas in the world. But it is just a small part of a vast network of deltas and wetlands in the Arctic vulnerable to surges. No one has yet done a study of these surges in many other Arctic regions, but given their proximity to the coastline, it’s likely that many of these wetlands have been similarly affected.

“This was one of the biggest surge events in the past 1,000 years,” says Smol. “Understanding the impact it had on this ecosystem will help us better understand how vulnerable other places like it are along the coastlines of the Arctic.”

POSTED ON 06 Jun 2011 IN Climate Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Antarctica and the Arctic North America 


I believe it is time for Native Peoples to seek compensation in court against organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute and American Chamber of Commerce who have delayed efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions for the past 20+ years.

Dennis Stansell, MSW

Posted by Dennis Stansell on 09 Jun 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing on the Arctic for three decades. He was the 2007 recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy and was a finalist for the Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment in 2008. His latest book is The Big Thaw. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the need for an Arctic Ocean treaty and about how southern species are increasingly roaming north as the Arctic warms.



Northern Forests Emerge
As the New Global Tinderbox

Rapidly rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased lightning strikes are leading to ever-larger wildfires in the northern forests of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, with potentially severe ecological consequences.

Oil Drilling in Arctic Ocean:
A Push into Uncharted Waters

As the U.S. and Russia take the first steps to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, experts say the harsh climate, icy seas, and lack of infrastructure means a sizeable oil spill would be very difficult to clean up and could cause extensive environmental damage.

Frustrated Tar Sands Industry
Looks for Arctic Export Route

With the Keystone XL and other pipeline projects running into stiff opposition, Alberta’s tar sands industry is facing growing pressure to find ways to get its oil to market. One option under consideration would be to ship the oil via an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean.

Scientists Focus on Polar Waters
As Threat of Acidification Grows

A sophisticated and challenging experiment in Antarctica is the latest effort to study ocean acidification in the polar regions, where frigid waters are expected to feel most acutely the ecological impacts of acidic conditions not seen in millions of years.

Northern Mystery: Why Are
Birds of the Arctic in Decline?

With some species of Arctic birds experiencing steep drops in population and their prey also undergoing marked shifts, scientists are working to understand what role climate change is playing in these unfolding ecological transformations.


MORE IN Reports

For Storing Electricity, Utilities
Are Turning to Pumped Hydro

by john roach
High-tech batteries may be garnering the headlines. But utilities from Spain to China are increasingly relying on pumped storage hydroelectricity – first used in the 1890s – to overcome the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

On Thin Ice: Big Northern Lakes
Are Being Rapidly Transformed

by cheryl katz
As temperatures rise, the world’s iconic northern lakes are undergoing major changes that include swiftly warming waters, diminished ice cover, and outbreaks of harmful algae. Now, a global consortium of scientists is trying to assess the toll.

The Haunting Legacy of
South Africa’s Gold Mines

by mark olalde
Thousands of abandoned gold mines are scattered across South Africa, polluting the water with toxics and filling the air with noxious dust. For the millions of people who live around these derelict sites, the health impacts can be severe.

The Sushi Project: Farming Fish
And Rice in California's Fields

by jacques leslie
Innovative projects in California are using flooded rice fields to rear threatened species of Pacific salmon, mimicking the rich floodplains where juvenile salmon once thrived. This technique also shows promise for growing forage fish, which are increasingly threatened in the wild.

A Delicate Balance: Protecting
Northwest’s Glass Sponge Reefs

by nicola jones
Rare and extensive reefs of glass sponges are found only one place on earth – a stretch of the Pacific Northwest coast. Now, efforts are underway to identify and protect these fragile formations before they are obliterated by fishing vessels that trawl the bottom.

As the Fracking Boom Spreads,
One Watershed Draws the Line

by bruce stutz
After spreading across Pennsylvania, fracking for natural gas has run into government bans in the Delaware River watershed. The basins of the Delaware and nearby Susquehanna River offer a sharp contrast between what happens in places that allow fracking and those that do not.

Will Tidal and Wave Energy
Ever Live Up to Their Potential?

by sophia v. schweitzer
As solar and wind power grow, another renewable energy source with vast potential — the power of tides and waves — continues to lag far behind. But progress is now being made as governments and the private sector step up efforts to bring marine energy into the mainstream.

The Rapid and Startling Decline
Of World’s Vast Boreal Forests

by jim robbins
Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the huge boreal forest that spans from Scandinavia to northern Canada. Unprecedented warming in the region is jeopardizing the future of a critical ecosystem that makes up nearly a third of the earth’s forest cover.

Northern Forests Emerge
As the New Global Tinderbox

by ed struzik
Rapidly rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased lightning strikes are leading to ever-larger wildfires in the northern forests of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, with potentially severe ecological consequences.

For U.S. Tribes, a Movement to
Revive Native Foods and Lands

by cheryl katz
On ancestral lands, the Fond du Lac band in Minnesota is planting wild rice and restoring wetlands damaged by dams, industry, and logging. Their efforts are part of a growing trend by Native Americans to bring back traditional food sources and heal scarred landscapes.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Paris Climate Coverage COP21

Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

A 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner captures stunning images of wild salmon runs in Alaska.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.