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Module 4 • Flora and Fauna: Climate & Ecosystems
Student Page 4-2
Coastal Changes
Coastlines in the Arctic have been changing rapidly in recent years due to climate change.
Nicole Couture of McGill university in Montréal and Vassily Spiridonov of WWF-Russia,
report on the effect these changes are having on coastal communities and ecosystems.
The arctic region is undergoing the most
rapid environmental change experienced
by a large region anywhere on earth in at
least the last 10,000 years, and the rate of
change is expected to increase over the com-
ing decades. The coastal zone is particularly
vulnerable
to climate warming because it is affected by
changes in three different systems—the land,
the ocean, and the atmosphere. In most parts
of the Arctic, the greatest coastal threat from
environmental change is an increase in ero-
sion. As permafrost warms, it loses much of its
strength and is more susceptible to attack by
waves.
In addition, warmer sea temperatures melt
the ice binding coastal sediments and wash
them away. A solid cover of sea ice in winter
protects the coast from erosion, but even dur-
ing the breakup period in the spring or freeze
in the autumn, the presence of ice floes serves
to suppress waves.
The extent and duration of sea ice has steadily declined in recent years, however, and in 2005 the sea
ice cover was the lowest it has been since satellite measurements began in 1978. This trend is expect-
ed to continue, and can significantly increase the open water period when wave erosion occurs.
In the Canadian Beaufort Sea, for example, open water currently lasts from June to early October
(about 120 days), but the duration of open water is expected to increase by 60 days to 150 days. Sea
level rise due to the thermal expansion of ocean waters will subject even more land to flooding and
erosion, and this is compounded in areas where natural adjustments in the earth’s crust are already
causing coastal submergence.
The most rapid coastal erosion occurs as a result of storm surges, when winds force water up on shore
above the height reached by normal tides. Should changing environmental conditions result in more
frequent or stronger storms, this process will be intensified. Sediments, soil carbon, and contaminants
mobilized by erosion have the potential to create dramatic changes in the geochemistry and biodiver-
sity of the near shore zone.
Physical changes in the coastal zone have differing implications. For instance, many Arctic communi-
ties are faced with threats to their infrastructure. Duane Smith of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference,
says: “Some of our communities are eroding into the ocean in front of our eyes because of the
decrease in the multilayered ice, which is allowing for larger storms to roll in.”
Erosion at Tuktoyaktuk in western Canada has already shifted the coastline more than 100 meters in
the last 50 years and is causing the abandonment of a school, houses, and other buildings. Substantial
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