Arctic & Antarctica
An aerial photo of low-lying Utqiagvik, Alaska, in 2014.Wikimedia Commons

Public talks kick off study of ice loss, warming and coastal changes in northern Alaska

The northernmost town in the country had its warmest March on record. Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, is among the coastal communities that are feeling the effects of a warming Arctic firsthand.

The hub of the North Slope region lies on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. The low-lying coastal region is seeing its coastlines retreat by several feet per year.

A University of Washington team will be in the area from April 28 to May 5 visiting four communities as the team prepares for a two-year study of how waves, ice and coastal erosion are affecting the coast.

“The coast was being protected by ice. Now that there’s less ice, there’s less protection. The waves start to erode away at the coast a lot more,” said Jim Thomson, an oceanographer in the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “There’s a feedback loop when you break up the ice, then you have less protection, and then the waves can impinge on the coast. And warmer water temperatures compound this effect by melting the permafrost along the coast.”

His previous research looked at how bigger offshore waves can form in the increasingly ice-free waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Now Thomson and team member Lucia Hosekova, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading, will spend a week visiting the communities, giving presentations to school groups and presenting at Town Hall-style evening events.

Team members hope for a two-way conversations at the evening events in Utqiagvik, Kaktovik, Wainwright and Point Lay. Together, the region’s eight communities are home to some 9,000 permanent residents.

“These communities have lived there for generations,” Thomson said. “They know how their ecosystems work, so we want to hear from their elders and learn from people who hunt and fish there year-round.”

The researchers will be back for another short visit the first week of August. In November, the team will take the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ RV Sikuliaq icebreaker for three weeks to watch fall storms hit the shore at the time of year when coastal ice begins to form.

“There’s no guarantee, but over three weeks hopefully we’ll get some storms where the ice has formed and some where there is no ice,” Thomson said.

This spring, the state of Alaska had the warmest March on record. Utqiagvik’s average temperature of 5.9 F was 18.6 degrees above the 30-year average, and 6.6 degrees above the previous record, set in March 2018.

“There’s no question, the environment is changing rapidly,” Thomson said.

Utqiagvik also experienced a serious flood in fall 2017. Waves from a fall storm breached the beach berm, flooding the low-lying town. Damage was estimated at $10 million.

The new National Science Foundation-funded project, Coastal Ocean Dynamics in the Arctic, or CODA, will look at how water currents change and waves hit the coast with more open water, to provide better forecasts and predictions for the region’s future.

Co-principal investigator Nirnimesh Kumar, a UW assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, will lead the forecasting efforts.

“Our key question is once there’s less ice, then there’s more waves, and that changes the ocean conditions,” Thomson said. “We’ve previously been focused on looking at that offshore, for the larger-scale picture of the ocean. Now we’re trying to look close to the coast to learn how it works there.”

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For more information, contact Thomson at jthomson@apl.washington.edu or 206-616-0858.