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Climate Change Impacts to the U.S. Pacific and Arctic Coasts: Research

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Peeking into Permafrost

Barter Island sits at the top of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and with the Arctic facing quickly rising temperatures, USGS is there to investigate what’s causing the North Slope bluffs to erode so quickly. This permafrost environment is complex, so USGS studies many facets of the frozen landscape.

Video Transcript

Peter Swarzenski: The Arctic is heating up faster than many other places in the world, so we want to work there to look at the response of the environment to these rapid changes.

(pictures showing the geometrical shapes of permafrost, and then images of the coast and Barter Island)

Barter Island sits at the top of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—at 70 degrees north latitude, just 70 miles west of the Canada border. On this tundra island reside nearly 250 residents in a remote Alaskan village most have not heard of called Kaktovik.

(video of USGS working on the ocean bluffs in snow and wind. Following this are shots of delayed flight times, the landscape when sunny and then foggy, and imagery of airports and moving bags)

The weather here can be inhospitable at times—the year’s average temperature is below freezing, which can make working outside pretty difficult. Yet the greater challenge can be in just getting to the island. The fog around Barter can mean days and days of delayed flights, waiting around at the airport, and many trips hauling gear back and forth.

(pause to show everyone aboard the flight)

So the scientists are clearly happy when they’re finally on their way.

(intercom on airplane: “... at row 4 we have two  window exits—one on either side of the cabin...”

USGS researchers want to know what’s making bluffs erode so quickly along the North Slope. Is the treeless, frozen land, or permafrost tundra, thawing faster and deeper as Arctic temperatures warm? And if so, is that thawing helping to speed up erosion once the storm waves hit? Is the shrinking sea ice also part of the problem?

(aerial shots and time-lapse shot of bluffs showing collapse and storm activity

Bruce Richmond: What we’ve seen these last few years is a lot of melting on the actual bluff surface, creating small streams. On our recent trip, we were there for 4 or 5 days, and the size of the streams ... we could visibly see them growing.

(shots showing Bruce working and walking on the tundra. Streams flowing and signs of thawing mud are visible).

They also gather other bits of data for a wider view of what’s changing in the Arctic—and what’s triggering it. In some places like Drew Point, Alaska, nearly 20 meters of bluffs can erode in a year. In Kaktovik...

(a panoramic shot, and one showing a large chunk of icy bluffs fallen from the coast)

Bruce: Erosion rates there are fairly moderate, averaging about 1.3 meters/year for the tundra bluffs. But it’s punctuated by storm events, where in a single storm you can get several meters of erosion.

(footage of waves rolling into the coast)

So they snap photos of the coastline from planes; they measure how much the shoreline has shifted the past 60 years; and they use time-lapse cameras to capture big storms and erosion along the bluffs.

(aerial shots of the coast, historical images of the coastline showing how much coastline has changed in 600 years—100 meters—and a still shot of a local resident pointing at a time lapse camera)

Bruce: We’re also coring to look at the internal geology of the bluffs. We work with local Iñupiats in their boats. We’ll also work with the locals using ATVS. We’ve been collecting repeat photography of the bluff face along Barter Island, so we can actually look at specific changes through time.

(video of scientists along the bluffs drilling into the permafrost and holding out an icy, muddy core. Then shots of USGS staff aboard an Iñupiat boat and on an ATV, with a series of bluff shots from the ATV stitched together.)

Peter Swarzenski and Cordell Johnson also test how electricity flows through the icy ground, which tells them how the permafrost is constructed.

(still images showing Peter walking across tundra with their gear and laying out the electrical lines. One image shows a small crevasse in the permafrost.)

Peter: The surface is actually really complicated. How consistent is the permafrost as you go down or across the surface? It’s not a simple layer of frozen sediment.
And then we can run chemical analyses. For example, what the salinity of the permafrost is at depths. How old is the permafrost at 1 meter or at 2 meters or at 5 meters?

(still images and video showing cores being collected and landscape where scientists are drilling into the permafrost)

More trips to the area are planned to resolve how the water flowing beneath the permafrost—called groundwater—can influence erosion.

Peter: If 10 meters are being eroded every year, you want to know what this place is going to look like in 10 or 20 years. So knowing something about how fragile these coastal bluffs are, is really useful.

(ends with a series of coastal shots, waves, and failing bluffs, plus one coastal shot from Wainwright, Alaska, showing reinforced sandbags along the cliffs)

Final Slide of Credits:

Science voices: Peter Swarzenski and Bruce Richmond
Produced by: Amy West
Video footage: Amy West, Bruce Richmond, Tom Lorenson,
Music: Going Forward Looking Back and Massive by Podington Bear, from an Attribution, NonCommercial International Creative Common license. 3.0, ©Chad Crouch
Photo credits: Ann Gibbs, Peter Swarzenski, Bruce Richmond, Li Erikson, Tom Lorenson, Christopher Arp
Special thanks: Cordell Banks, UC Santa Cruz, the City of Kaktovik, Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
URL: https://walrus.wr.usgs.gov/climate-change/permafrost.html
Page Contact Information: Laura Zink Torresan
Page Last Modified: 14 June 2016 (lzt)