Article image

Rising temperatures are transforming Arctic coasts

A special issue of the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment is shedding light on rapidly changing Arctic coasts. Scientists at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) describe the potential consequences of shifting Arctic shorelines for humans, animals, and the environment.

“The pace of changes in the Arctic is increasing, leading to accelerated coastal retreat,” said Dr. Anna Irrgang of the AWI Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. “This affects both the natural and human environment, for example, by releasing carbon from the soil into the sea and atmosphere, or losing the land that supports communities and infrastructure.”

Arctic coastal regions are not uniform. For example, shorelines in Alaska, Canada and Siberia are made of heavy permafrost bluffs that are resistant to wave action under cold temperatures, but vulnerable as they warm up. Other shorelines, such as those found in Svalbard, are rocky and less fragile. With temperatures rising, however, scientists expect that all of these coastal systems will change to some degree.

“Predictions about this are often subject to large uncertainties because reliable oceanographic and environmental data for remote coastal zones are limited,” said Dr. Irrgang.

“Our current understanding of Arctic coastal dynamics is fragmented, with too few data with high spatial and temporal resolution on environmental factors and shoreline changes.” 

“While such datasets already exist for some regions such as northern Alaska, most of the Arctic coast is poorly mapped.” 

The report highlights the urgent need for more observations and research on fragile Arctic coastal systems. This sort of work could greatly improve the accuracy of predictions and help scientists and policy makers prepare for the future. 

The state of Arctic coasts have far-reaching impacts on water availability, erosion, plant and animal life as well as human well-being. 

“For this, we need to develop adaptation methods that enable good and sustainable living conditions in Arctic coastal settlements. Close cooperation with local people is central to this,” said Dr. Irrgang.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day