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

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - Nunataryuk (Permafrost thaw and the changing arctic coast: science for socio-economic adaptation)

Periodo di rendicontazione: 2020-11-01 al 2022-04-30

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. These changes are 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 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. 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.
To predict the impacts of permafrost thaw to contaminant release, a framework has been established for geospatial databases of contaminants in permafrost soils. It includes work on mapping of mercury (Hg), methyl mercury (MeHg) as well as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). In the Beaufort Sea area, catchment-scale geospatial databases of thaw impacts on potential lateral flux from permafrost have been set up.
To account for the strong acceleration in Arctic warming, sea ice reduction and coastal permafrost thaw over the last decade, an updated survey of archive data on Arctic coasts and coastal erosion was released. Also a report on new advances on Arctic coastal retreat rates from 14 coastal permafrost sites around the Arctic overwhelmingly indicate that decadal-scale erosion rates are increasing. This information has been directly used in projections of Arctic coastal erosion and its sensitivity to warming in the twenty-first century.
To advance the knowledge on the great unknown of subsea permafrost in the global climate system, the project published a new map on subsea permafrost distribution, which dramatically improves our understanding of the past evolution of subsea permafrost and how its distribution depends on sea level, glaciation and sedimentation.
For marine surface sediments along the Arctic coast and beyond, where large but yet quantitatively unknown amounts of organic carbon are stored, the Circum-Arctic Sediment CArbon Database (CASCADE) was established. This new database builds on the published literature and earlier unpublished records through an extensive international community collaboration.
The work on the trans-disciplinary risk framework has continued during the RP3. A conceptual risk framework (compass model) was developed in RP2, Larsen et al. (2021), that incorporates the notion of the dual dimension of risk, and relates to the case of thawing permafrost in the Arctic. During RP3 local residents’ perceived risks related to permafrost thaw have been examined in Aklavik (Canada), Qeqertarsuaq (Greenland), and Longyearbyen (Svalbard).
As part of the risk analysis, key physical processes generating risks in relation to permafrost thaw were identified. These key physical processes or drivers have a variety of specific physical, chemical and biological impacts. These in turn create key hazards that have direct and indirect consequences for various domains of human lives. The last project period concentrates on creating strategies to mitigate and adapt to these consequences.
On the global level the project has specifically worked on advancing Earth System Models in the framework of CMIP6, CMIP6-interim and CMIP7 by including processes never considered before in large scale circulation models. These include 1) coastal erosion, 2) newly analysed abrupt (or rapid) permafrost thaw, which is releasing carbon to greenhouse gas production much more quickly than accounted for in existing (ie., IPCC AR6) modelling efforts, 3) subsea permafrost thaw and 4) the effects of long term (i.e. multi-century) emissions resulting from permafrost thaw to which we are already committed.
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 further uses a risk evaluation methodology developed together with Arctic coastal communities 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.

All project results will be compiled into The Arctic Permafrost Atlas that is a key outcome of the Nunataryuk project. Edited by GRID-Arendal together with all Nunataryuk project partners, it will present state-of-the-art knowledge about permafrost and the impacts of permafrost thaw on human communities in the Arctic.
Herschel Island / Qikiqtaruk, Yukon Coast.
Thematic Nunataryuk collage.
Ilulissat, Greenland.
Qiqiktaruk, Yukon Coast.