Alaska is Going, Going...

‘Climate change’…we just can’t get away from it these days. Carbon everywhere, rising ocean levels, floods, droughts, and never-ending ‘Seinfeld’ reruns…make it stop! To us regular folks though, the evidence isn't really seen in the day-to-day. So as Jerry would say, ”What’s the deal?”Just like castles made of sand: USGS researcher Ben Jones measuring AK coastal erosion on the Beaufort Sea.
Just like castles made of sand: USGS researcher Ben Jones measuring AK coastal erosion on the Beaufort Sea.Courtesy Christopher Arp, USGS

Well skeptics, read on. According to researchers with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado, parts of the US are literally falling into the sea due to factors associated with climate change. Sure, coastal erosion happens, but this is getting ridiculous.

How do they know? Over two years, a team of researchers from CU and USGS used weather stations, GPS data, wave intensity/water temperature sensors, and time-lapse cameras to record coastal erosion between Point Borrow and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska during the summer months when the sea ice is out. In these videos, you can watch the coast crumble to the sea. That's right, you can actually see the Alaskan coast fall apart before your eyes! (watch the video)
Affected coastline: Alaska's endangered coast, with Beaufort Sea to the North.
Affected coastline: Alaska's endangered coast, with Beaufort Sea to the North.Courtesy Goodle Maps, edited by Prescott Esquire

Why is this a big deal? It used to be that this coast would lose a handful of yards each year during the short summer season, but more recently, this coast is falling apart on the order of 30-45 feet annually. That means that between the time INSTAAR started looking at this problem and today, the coast has lost almost the length of a whole football field! And, according to the video linked above, that’s valuable real estate for migrating birds and other critters. In addition to habitat loss, think about it: our country, the US, literally falling apart. Lame.

How is this all going down? The biggest factor is the coast itself. The soil is usually 50-80% ice; the rest is silt and mossy plant material. Now, imagine a brick building where all the mortar (stuff between the bricks) melts away and you have an idea of what happens to this soil when summer heats up.
But it’s more than that: Robert Anderson, researcher with INSTAAR and CU Geographic guru tells us that there is a TRIPLE-WHAMMY at play where each ‘whammy’ works together towards coastal carnage.

Whammy 1: Longer the ice is away, the more soil melting occurs (more melting=more destruction).

Whammy 2: Longer the sea ice is away, the warmer the ocean gets (up to 60ºF, warmest temp. on record…ever).

Whammy 3: Further back the ice melts, the bigger the waves can get (called the “fetch effect”).

More stuff: The buzz on this one is crazy, just Google “Alaskan coastal erosion”. USGS did a study up there in 2007 (USGS article), Nat Geo has got another video, even Reuters is on this story. Anderson’s paper is still pending, but the researchers have presented these findings at annual American Geophysical Union meetings in ‘08 and ’09 (abstract). Check it out and let me know what you think.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

OldKingCrow's picture
OldKingCrow says:

Holy cow! Isn't this the sort of thing that's supposed to happen over decades or even centuries? I know there are a few bonuses to climate change, like bigger waves for the surfers, but mad rapid erosion doesn't appear to be one of them.

posted on Sun, 01/24/2010 - 4:14pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Good article. Made me better understand how the erosion is happening (like the visual of bricks and mortar) and it's affects. LOVE the video link! Thanks!

posted on Mon, 01/25/2010 - 8:57am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Wow! That is an alarming rate of erosion.

posted on Mon, 01/25/2010 - 9:45am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Holy crumbling earth! Thanks for this - a very real illustration of the massive effects of climate change.

posted on Tue, 01/26/2010 - 10:47am

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