The community of Tuktoyaktuk is falling into the ocean.
More specifically, the Inuvialuit hamlet is victim to soil erosion through which, each year, more of its coastline is consumed by rising sea levels, warming temperatures, and melting permafrost.
The land is disappearing into the Arctic Ocean.
“It’s no secret to anybody that Tuk is at the forefront of climate-driven coastal change,” says Dustin Whalen.
Whalen, a physical scientist for the federal department of natural resources, has been studying erosion affecting the community and surrounding area.
The data compiled so far is bleak.
For instance, Tuktoyaktuk Island – right off the coast of the community – is eroding by two metres per year.
Peninsula Point, 10 kilometres to the east, is eroding at three and a half metres a year. At Toker Point, 30 kilometres to the north, it’s four metres a year.
Farther out, those numbers only grow.
“It’s dramatic,” Whalen says. “I can take you to sites 60 kilometres away, as the helicopter flies, that are moving at 20 metres a year.
“Tuk is by far the most impacted community. But for the landscape itself, Tuk is only seeing a fraction of what other spots are seeing.”
Creeping erosion has already affected Tuktoyaktuk greatly.
Houses have had to be relocated farther from the coastline and land near the shore is too unstable to build on.
At the current rate, the entire hamlet may need to relocate.
‘Not just going to up and leave’
Erwin Elias is the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk. He says the move is only a matter of time.
“We’re trying to adapt right now with what’s going on around us,” Elias says.
“I think that inevitably, we are going to be moving no matter what. We want to sustain it as long as we can, but I think we also understand what’s coming, too.
“We’ve been doing whatever we can over so many years to sustain ourselves … but now, with the climate change, it’s more rapid and things are happening more quickly. It is definitely an urgency for the community, because nobody knows what’s going to happen here in the near future.”
Inuvialuit people have lived in the region for centuries. Many still live on the land, hunting caribou and beluga whales.
People in the area hold a deep sense of their culture, says Elias. The thought of losing the only home many of them have known is devastating.
“There are a lot of people that are sentimental about where they are,” he says. “There’s a lot of history and a lot of culture involved in all of this, and it’s not [somewhere] that we’re just going to up and leave.”
Can vegetation mats help?
The impact of the erosion on Tuktoyaktuk is pushing scientists, governments, and residents to find solutions.
Erika Hille is a researcher at the NWT’s Aurora Research Institute. Her team is developing a plan to manage erosion using native plant species.
Cultivating local vegetation could be one way to combat permafrost thaw by keeping the ground cold and intact, Hille said. The team has created what she refers to as “vegetation mats” and placed them along Kugmallit Bay, not far from Tuk.
It’s not so much the roots or seeds that offer solutions, Hille says, but the healthy soil that comes with them.
“We were trying to keep a natural way of insulating the ground, and the best thing we could come up with was vegetation mats that have that thick organic layer,” she says. “Because in the natural environment, the organic layer is pretty effective at insulating the permafrost.”
Hille and her colleagues are now monitoring erosion at Kugmallit Bay using aerial photos and land surveys, which will help them to assess the mats’ effectiveness at keeping the land intact.
She believes more emphasis should be placed on the steps actively being taken to help communities. Too much doom and gloom, she agues, can be unproductive.
“It’d be nice to coordinate all of the data that’s being collected, all of the mitigation attempts that are being tried, and that kind of thing,” Hille says,
“We know a lot about climate change impacts, but we don’t know a lot about Arctic restoration.”
Having a choice
Plants are not the only weapon. Last year, hamlet officials hired an engineering firm to examine artificial solutions, too – like fortifying the shoreline with cement slabs.
The engineers also suggested building up parts of Tuktoyaktuk Island so it continues to act as a natural wave break for the mainland harbour, limiting erosion.
Mayor Elias thinks that plan holds promise.
“If we can build up the shoreline and we can protect our island, I think it will sustain us for another 30 years,” he says.
But he acknowledges it won’t solve the problem forever.
“I think people realize what could be done here if we needed to but again, eventually, Mother Nature is going to take its course,” says Elias.
“There’s not much we can do with that. That’s out of our hands.”
That’s why precautions need to be taken to ensure the community has a safe exit plan if need be, he says.
In July, Tuktoyaktuk received $5.5 million from the federal government toward the cost of mitigation erosion’s impact on the community.
About $1.5 million of that funding went toward a road upgrade this summer, intended to give Tuk residents a reliable evacuation route in case of emergency.
According to Elias, mitigation work must now be about ensuring community members have a choice.
“If something bad comes or if we ever have a flood, then we need to have an option,” he says.
“Residents have to have another option rather than watching their homes or the cemetery wash away.”