Fiercer storms and bigger waves hasten Tuk’s erosion crisis
Decreasing Arctic sea ice cover is increasing the severity of storm surge on Canada’s northern coast, worsening coastal erosion in places like Tuktoyaktuk.
The Northwest Territories hamlet has spent years coming up with a plan to move some homes away from its rapidly eroding coast, but the problem could be complicated by erosion of an island that currently protects Tuktoyaktuk’s harbour.
With less sea ice cover, storms have more open water across which to whip up waves that can batter the community and hasten erosion.
Improved storm surge forecasting is on the way by 2024, and Tuktoyaktuk is working to expand its community-run climate monitoring program while leaders devise ways to protect the hamlet and its population in the longer term.
“The erosion will wipe away our whole town if it keeps happening,” Eriel Lugt, a Tuktoyaktuk resident who helps to coordinate local climate monitoring, told scientists at a Toronto presentation in December.
Some measures being contemplated, such as artificially reinforcing rocks on the island sheltering Tuktoyaktuk’s harbour, are seen by leaders as a means of buying time while broader solutions – like a full relocation of the community – are examined.
But as sea ice cover shrinks, worsening storm surge leaves even less time to make important decisions.
Much of the focus is on what happens to the island. While the island itself is not a population centre, the harbour behind it is the heart of the community.
“If we lose that island to the weather and climate change, that harbour … will be gone,” Tuktoyaktuk Elder William Dillon told researchers at December’s ArcticNet conference through a video presented by Lugt.
“We’re just trying to look after things and figure out how we can protect that island better.”
Lugt describes the island as “a barrier” that absorbs storms’ worst effects, leaving the harbour comparatively unscathed.
But researchers working in Tuktoyaktuk believe the island could be breached in 20 to 25 years, exposing the harbour to the full force of storms.
That has consequences for the integrity of harbourside buildings, for transportation through the harbour, and for the wellbeing of sea mammals.
Lina Madaj, a postdoctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam public research university, has been studying what happens to sediment in the area as the coast erodes.
“Tuktoyaktuk harbour is a really important harbour with really shallow entrances. We have figured out there is a lot of sediment in the beginning of the harbour and there’s a lot going in, but not the same amount going out,” Madaj said.
As the harbour fills up, moving around becomes harder for sea life, too. Madaj equated the effect to what would happen if someone poured many bags of sand into your living room.
Fleur van Crimpen, a postgraduate student at the same university, is working to assess how coastal erosion affects permafrost and the carbon stored within it.
“The ice-free period is increasing every year,” she said of the changing conditions on the Arctic Ocean beyond Tuktoyaktuk.
“There’s a delay of freeze-up and an earlier thaw. That increases the chance of wave action, because storms need some time to develop.”
The easier the path for a storm to roll in, van Crimpen said, the more that muddy slumps created by thawing permafrost will be washed away, removing chunks of the coast at a time.
A complicating factor is the overall expectation that climate change will bring increasingly severe storms.
“You already hear stories that wind patterns are more extreme,” van Crimpen said.
New forecasting on the way
Environment and Climate Change Canada is planning a new system of storm surge warnings that will help communities like Tuktoyaktuk to better understand the threat on a day-to-day basis.
Matt Loney, a senior program meteorologist for the federal agency, said technology upgrades will soon allow five-day storm surge forecasts for all of Canada’s coasts, expanding a program that until now has focused on the Atlantic Ocean.
“Climate change has underscored the fact that the vulnerability of coastal infrastructure and the impacts of coastal flooding are expected to increase,” said Loney, “because of the increased intensity of storms but also, particularly for the Arctic, the expected loss of sea ice will exacerbate the problem. And global sea level rise, of course.”
Environment and Climate Change Canada’s website and app will issue a daily coastal flooding risk index, similar to the way air quality is currently handled. Loney said April 1, 2024 is the target date for the system to be operational.
Tuktoykatuk, meanwhile, is upgrading its own climate monitoring.
At ArcticNet, which brings together scientists of various disciplines who study the Arctic and its peoples, Lugt said Arctic Inspiration Prize money from 2021 has helped to create a program that monitors air, water, erosion and landscape change. Tuktoyaktuk Island, for example, now has six monitors for erosion in place.
Lugt said a new round of training that helps residents to become climate monitors will take place early this year, and new instruments are being introduced alongside a building with office space and room for climate monitors to come and go.
Tuktoyaktuk wants to hold a conference involving the six Inuvialuit Settlement Region communities later in 2023.
Among Toronto audience members for Lugt’s presentation was Jackie Jacobson, the Nunakput MLA who represents Tuktoyaktuk in the NWT’s Legislative Assembly.
Jacobson promised territorial politicians would use information like that gathered by Lugt and colleagues “for a plan to go forward and protect our community.”