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Drivers, dynamics and impacts of changing Arctic coasts

Abstract

Arctic coasts are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels and the loss of permafrost, sea ice and glaciers. Assessing the influence of anthropogenic warming on Arctic coastal dynamics, however, is challenged by the limited availability of observational, oceanographic and environmental data. Yet, with the majority of permafrost coasts being erosive, coupled with projected intensification of erosion and flooding, understanding these changes is critical. In this Review, we describe the morphological diversity of Arctic coasts, discuss important drivers of coastal change, explain the specific sensitivity of Arctic coasts to climate change and provide an overview of pan-Arctic shoreline change and its multifaceted impacts. Arctic coastal changes impact the human environment by threatening coastal settlements, infrastructure, cultural sites and archaeological remains. Changing sediment fluxes also impact the natural environment through carbon, nutrient and pollutant release on a magnitude that remains difficult to predict. Increasing transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary collaboration efforts will build the foundation for identifying sustainable solutions and adaptation strategies to reduce future risks for those living on, working at and visiting the rapidly changing Arctic coast.

Key points

  • Arctic coasts are some of the most rapidly changing coasts on Earth. Most change occurs during the sea-ice-free period, which can be up to 3 months.

  • The erosion of permafrost coasts has increased since the early 2000s when compared with the late twentieth century (1960s–1990s), coinciding with an intensification of environmental drivers linked to anthropogenic warming.

  • Mean annual erosion rates along stretches of unlithified permafrost coasts in Alaska, Canada and Siberia have more than doubled since the early 2000s compared with the latter half of the twentieth century.

  • Coastal erosion along permafrost coasts is expected to continue at high rates or even accelerate in response to further climate warming.

  • Rapid environmental and social change in the Arctic highlights the need for coordinated interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary efforts of scientists, stakeholders and policymakers, together with the local coastal population, to develop adaptive strategies around Arctic coasts in transition.

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Fig. 1: Examples of different Arctic coastal landforms.
Fig. 2: Map of Arctic coastal type, permafrost distribution and sea-ice extent.
Fig. 3: Variability of backshore height, ground-ice content and shoreline change rates along the Arctic coast.
Fig. 4: Physical processes that contribute to morphodynamic changes along permafrost coasts.
Fig. 5: Impacts of climate warming on Arctic coastal environments.
Fig. 6: Changes to an ice-rich permafrost coast characterized by thermokarst lakes and ice wedges as derived from remote sensing technology.

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Acknowledgements

A.M.I., P.P.O. and H.L. were supported by EU Horizon 2020 Nunataryuk project (grant number 773421). M.B. would like to acknowledge financial support from the Carlsberg Foundation (grant number CF20-0129). L.M.F. was supported by the US National Science Foundation (grant numbers 1927553 and 1927708). The work of A.V.B. was funded by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR) (grant number 20-35-70002). S.A.O. was supported by the RFBR (grant number 18-05-60300). B.M.J. was supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation (grant number OISE-1927553) and the Interdisciplinary Research for Arctic Coastal Environments (InteRFACE) project through the US Department of Energy. The authors thank A. Nereson (USGS) for developing Fig. 2 and Y. Nowak for developing Figs 4,5.

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B.M.J. was instrumental in initiating this paper. A.M.I. led the Review and organized the collaboration. All co-authors provided input on the manuscript text, figures and discussion of scientific content. In particular, L.M.F. drafted the Geodiversity of Arctic coasts section, A.V.B. and S.A.O. drafted the Drivers of Arctic coastal dynamics section, M.B. drafted the Climate sensitivity of Arctic coasts section, A.M.I. drafted the Arctic shoreline changes section, P.P.O. and H.L. drafted the Impacts of Arctic coastal erosion section and L.H.E. drafted Box 1. B.M.J. contributed to editing the paper. The work of A.M.I., M.B., L.M.F., A.E.G. and L.H.E. brought the paper to its final form.

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Correspondence to Anna M. Irrgang.

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Glossary

Permafrost

Subsurface materials that remain continuously at or below 0 °C for at least 2 consecutive years.

Shoreline progradation

Seaward advance of the shoreline.

Periglacial

Processes influenced by intense freeze–thaw and/or permafrost.

Paraglacial

Non-glacial geomorphological processes conditioned by glaciation.

Bluff face

Sea-facing slope between bluff toe and bluff top.

Coastal dynamics

The ongoing transition of coastal processes caused by the interplay and combined effects of oceanographic, terrestrial, periglacial and paraglacial processes, and the resulting redistribution of sediment, carbon, nutrients and contaminants.

Unlithified

Composed of sediment clasts, not bedrock.

Lithified

The transformation and cementation of sediments into solid rock (singular, lithic).

Syngenetic

Ground-ice formation occurring in synchrony with sediment accumulation.

Epigenetic

Ice formation occurring post-deposition (in contrast to syngenetic).

Taliks

Ground in permafrost areas that remains unfrozen year round.

Thermokarst

Processes and landforms that result from the collapse of the land surface due to the melting of ground ice.

Cryopegs

A form of talik that remains unfrozen at temperatures below 0°C due to the presence of saline water (brines).

Active layer

Layer on top of permafrost that is subject to annual summer thaw and winter freeze.

IPCC SSP

Scenarios that describe alternative futures of socio-economic development in the absence of climate policy intervention.

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Irrgang, A.M., Bendixen, M., Farquharson, L.M. et al. Drivers, dynamics and impacts of changing Arctic coasts. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 39–54 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00232-1

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