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Permafrost thaw and the changing arctic coast: science for socio-economic adaptation

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - Nunataryuk (Permafrost thaw and the changing arctic coast: science for socio-economic adaptation)

Reporting period: 2019-05-01 to 2020-10-31

Arctic permafrost coasts make up 34% of the world's coasts and represent a key interface for human-environmental interactions. These coasts provide essential ecosystem services, exhibit high biodiversity and productivity, and support indigenous lifestyles. At the same time, this coastal zone is a dynamic and vulnerable zone of expanding infrastructure investment and growing health concerns. Permafrost thaw in combination with increasing sea level and changing sea-ice cover expose the Arctic coastal and nearshore areas to rapid changes. In some places, coastal erosion rates now exceed 20 meters per year. This trend is likely to trigger coastal landscape instability and increased hazard exposure, as well as dramatic consequences for the Earth’s climate and the Arctic nearshore ecosystem.

On the global level, the release of organic carbon previously frozen in permafrost and its transformation into greenhouse gases may push the global climate warming above the 1.5 °C targeted in the COP21 Paris Agreement. Yet, these projections do focus solely on the vertical release of greenhouse gases from permafrost thaw and do not include the lateral transfer of organic matter from land to sea or subsea permafrost degradation. Indeed, these processes are still not accounted for in global climate and Earth System Models informing the IPCC process.
On the local level, Arctic residents are directly impacted by rapidly changing conditions at the coast; Permafrost thaw leads to destabilization of infrastructure and natural resource extraction facilities, directly impacting the economy. Greater fluxes of sediment and organic matter from coastal erosion can impact the nearshore ecosystem, including aquatic resources important for the subsistence economy. Permafrost thaw also impacts the health of Arctic coastal communities through changes in water quality and the potential release of contaminants, frozen bacteria and anthrax. Yet, all of these issues have so far been considered in isolation and have not been addressed in an integrated research framework.

The pressing challenge is therefore to quantify and project organic matter, sediment and contaminant fluxes from thawing coastal and subsea permafrost and to accurately assess the implications of permafrost thaw for the indigenous populations, the local communities and the local environment in the Arctic coastal areas.

The main goal of the Nunataryuk project is to determine the impacts of thawing land, coast and subsea permafrost on the global climate and on humans in the Arctic and to develop targeted and co-designed adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Nunataryuk investigators have successfully conducted field campaigns in the Canadian Beaufort Sea region, in Siberia and in the Nordic countries. In order to be able to feed the global modelling groups with new data on lateral fluxes and carbon and nutrient degradation in the coastal zone, several joint campaigns were organized in summer 2019 to study both the terrestrial and the marine part of the Arctic coastal zone. An updated database on coastal erosion rates along the entire Arctic coastline is currently being compiled and will be used to validate the inclusion of a coastal erosion component in an Earth System Model. An extensive database of seafloor sediment characteristics based on drillcore results is currently being compiled and will become a milestone product of Nunataryuk. At the same time Nunataryuk investigators collected and collated observational data on subsea permafrost (frozen sub-seabed sediment) and published the first high resolution map of subsea permafrost for the entire circum-Arctic.

Nunataryuk picked the west Greenland community of Ilulissat to build a first-of-its-kind multi-disciplinary framework for assessing permafrost-related risks to the built-environment. There, community-scale hazard mapping and development as well as multi-disciplinary data collection was performed by Nunataryuk investigators stemming from the physical, social or engineering science realms to determine the socio-economic and physical state of the settlement. At the circum-Arctic level, Nunataryuk investigators published the first ever assessment on population, economy, infrastructure and health conditions in permafrost regions. These baseline datasets together with the epidemiological modelling results published during this reporting period will be used to determine the risks associated with classical contaminants (such as POPs and metals) and infectious diseases in an environment impacted by permafrost thaw.

Despite of pulling off the above scientific achievements, the main concern of the reporting period has been the global COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on the project work. Several field campaigns planned for spring, summer and fall 2020, especially in the communities, have been postponed or cancelled due to the pandemic. Laboratory work has been delayed and the 10-day long field school planned to be organized together with the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) in Abisko Sweden in Spring 2020 had to be cancelled.
On the global level, Nunataryuk focuses on filling important gaps by quantifying the carbon contribution to the global climate from subsea permafrost thawing and from lateral transfer of organic matter from land to sea, which are currently not accounted for in Earth System Models. Nunataryuk will be the first EU program ever to address these two points. For the first time, subsea permafrost along with pan-arctic coastal fluxes will be integrated into an Earth System Model and coupled to the global climate. The result will be a comprehensive assessment of the contribution of permafrost to the warming of the Earth and of its socio-economic consequences.

On the local level, Nunataryuk will be first to examine the health consequences of permafrost thaw by quantifying fluxes of contaminants and epidemiological impacts on humans and animals. The Arctic One Health approach, a holistic framework that considers the connections between the environment, plant, animal and human health, is used for evaluating health risks for wild-life and humans living in the three project focal areas. The project will further use a risk evaluation methodology developed together with community leaders to provide information on infrastructure vulnerability and failure and associated risks to health and the local economy. This integrated approach is unique and will be one of the main legacies of the project.

Nunataryuk will apply/use its novel transdisciplinary research chain from co-design to the on-the- ground field research and community engagement to creating policy relevant scenarios. It will recommend adaptation and mitigation action to community decision-makers within the context of an Integrated Assessment Modelling approach, taking this state-of-the-art methodology to the next level of integration between physical science and socio-economic understanding. It will facilitate tangible action to implement the UN SDG13 combatting climate change and its impacts and will put forward permafrost thaw cost estimates that are directly relevant for the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
Herschel Island / Qikiqtaruk, Yukon Coast.
Thematic Nunataryuk collage.
Ilulissat, Greenland.
Qiqiktaruk, Yukon Coast.