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From the Land to the Sea

The coastal permafrost Rapid Response Assessment (RRA) will consider the unique processes and interconnections across the permafrost environments on land, at the coast, and offshore. 

Rapid Response Assessments (RRAs)

Rapid Response Assessments (RRAs) are carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal to provide critical information on topical environmental issues in a timely manner. To date, 18 RRAs have been conducted tackling a variety of topics throughout the world.

The coastal permafrost RRA will comprise a 60-80 page report and an interactive web site with illustrative graphics, maps and multimedia elements. In consultation with northerners and indigenous groups, we will assess the state of knowledge on coastal permafrost, identify research needs, and recommend a path forward for the global community to address critical issues

source: Huffingtonpost.com

Core Author Team and Participating Agencies

The RRA will include contributions from discipline experts, northerners and Indigenous Peoples.

Project Management

GRID-Arendal will lead the RRA effort, drawing upon experiences from other RRAs conducted over the past decade. Tiina Kurvits, as the project lead, will coordinate the RRA and liaise with UN Environment and technical experts contributing to the program.

Science Coordinators

It is intended that the final report for the RRA will include a number of contributing authors. The core team formulating the scientific content for the RRA includes: Scott Dallimore (Geological Survey of Canada), Christopher Burn (Carleton University) and Young Keun Jin (Korea Polar Research Institute).

Indigenous and Northern Engagement

We are striving for a strong northern voice in the RRA as we recognise that the issues we will to address may have far-reaching impacts on Indigenous Peoples living in the north, contribute to achieving sustainable and secure northern communities and affect future economic prosperity. The core engagement team includes Pippa Seccombe-Hett (Aurora Research Institute), Michelle Côté (Geological Survey of Canada) and John Crump (GRID-Arendal).

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Geographic Focus

In keeping with the targeted nature of a RRA, we intend to focus on the western Arctic of North America where the sea level is rising and sensitive coastal areas are underlain by unconsolidated, ice-rich sediments with extensive occurrences of offshore permafrost. The similarity of the geology in this area to that in northern Siberia and elsewhere will allow extension of the findings to other parts of the Arctic.

Coastal Erosion

The RRA will focus on that part of the Arctic experiencing rapid coastal erosion and where the soils are dominated by unconsolidated sediments containing ground ice.

Coastal areas of the Arctic are mainly underlain by permafrost which is continuous beneath the landscape. Because of sea level changes in the past 2 million years, extensive offshore permafrost is found beneath the Beaufort Sea and areas offshore of northern Eurasia.

Terrestrial Processes

Terrestrial areas of the Arctic coastal plain are experiencing enhanced climate change, through atmospheric warming and changes in precipitation patterns, with their associated feedbacks affecting vegetation or surface hydrology. The RRA is focussing on unconsolidated ice-rich permafrost sediments which have potential to respond with significant impact, including:

Increased permafrost thawing or precipitation events triggering landslides.
Expansion of lakes triggering increased thermokarst degradation and changing aquatic ecosystems / conversely issues related to catastrophic drainage of lakes.
Shifts in vegetation cover including increased canopy height of shrub tundra or northward advance of treeline and their primary effects on snow cover.
Changes in surface permafrost conditions including deepening active layer and unique permafrost processes such as melting of ice wedges, sediment deformation or solifluction.
Terrestrial Processes

Terrestrial Processes - Societal Implications

Arctic communities and industrial developments have extensive infrastructure which extend inland from the coast. Key permafrost considerations in a warming climate include foundation stability for structures and linear infrastructure (roads and pipelines), as well as environmental issues such as achieving secure domestic water supplies and waste disposal.
The coastal plain comprises critical aquatic habitat and terrestrial biomes that are influenced by a variety of permafrost processes. As terrestrial permafrost warms or degrades substantial sediment and organic material are mobilized and can be transported to water bodies. Thermokarst lakes are a significant source of methane which can form within the lakes themselves or be transported to the lakes from deeper geologic sources .

Terrestrial Processes - RRA Considerations

We recognize that terrestrial areas of the Arctic coastal plain are already experiencing the effects of rapid climate change and that permafrost occurrence profoundly influences many active geologic processes. The RRA aims to address the following key questions:

Is there potential for large-scale terrestrial landscape response that could have substantial ecological impact?
Is there adequate knowledge of the engineering properties of terrestrial permafrost and adequate understanding of how northern facilities and infrastructure will respond to climate change?

Coastal Processes

Coastal areas of the Arctic Ocean which are experiencing marine transgression (sea level rise) are largely made up of unconsolidated, ice-rich permafrost. While in many areas the coastline has been retreating for thousands of years, there is concern that changes in sea ice regime and atmospheric warming are increasing the rate of coastal retreat.

The processes controlling retreat rates of ice-rich permafrost are different than other coastal settings and include unique cliff failure modes, loss of sediment strength and volume reduction as ground ice degrades in eroding cliff sediments and the nearshore.
At present there is no verified coastal erosion model for permafrost coasts and only a general understanding of the dominant processes modifying the nearshore environment.
The decline of summer sea ice cover in the western Arctic may affect many coastal processes. For instance, larger wave fetch over a prolonged period in the autumn can cause more significant and more frequent storm surges with potential for inundation of low lying coastal areas. Storm surges can threaten coastal communities and industrial infrastructure, increase the rate of coastal retreat, and have environmental consequences due to the incursion of saline sea water on the land killing the vegetation.

Coastal Processes – Societal Implications

A significant number of communities along the Arctic coast are experiencing enhanced rates of coastal erosion that is threatening existing infrastructure.
Given the unique processes associated with eroding permafrost, the strategies to protect shorelines in the Arctic have a poor engineering and scientific underpinning.
Eroding coastal sediments contribute substantial sediment to the nearshore which contains organic carbon and other constituents such as heavy metals. The ecological impact of increased coastal erosion on the nearshore is poorly studied.
At present, there are no accepted best practices methodologies in common use for assessing risks to community and industrial infrastructure in light of changing environmental conditions (wave regime, sea ice processes, atmospheric warming, etc.)

Coastal Processes – RRA Considerations

There is an active global community that has focused on the importance of advancing research on permafrost coasts through reports such as the 2010 State of the Arctic Coast and database efforts such as the Arctic Coastal Dynamics database. The RRA aims to address the following key questions:

Is there a common need to improve best practices for risk assessment related to Arctic coastal communities including consideration of erosion, sediment transport, storm surge inundation, etc.?
Is there a substantial gap in knowledge that is impeding the modelling of permafrost coastal erosion and if so, is enough being done to address the knowledge gaps? Is there sufficient environmental monitoring of this setting in light of the unique geological processes ongoing?
Is the increase in coastal erosion rates affecting the ecology of nearshore areas?
Because of the unique logistical and technical challenges to study coastal erosion, is there a substantive need to enhance international collaborations and sharing of resources?

Offshore Permafrost

Extensive shallow water shelf areas of the Arctic Ocean are underlain by permafrost that has warmed over the past 12,000 years as a result of sea level rise.

Sediment processes associated with permafrost thaw and warming include weakening of sediment strength, liberation of pore water and trapped gases, and unique microbiology conditioned by organic material contained in the thawing sediments.
Geological processes that may occur in this setting include sea floor settlement and subsea thermokarst, formation of pingo-like features, marine landslides, and free gas escape.

Offshore Permafrost – Societal Implications

Oil and Gas Development:

Substantial oil and gas resources occur beneath shelf areas of the Arctic Ocean where offshore permafrost is widespread.
Subsurface sediment processes resulting from degradation and warming of offshore permafrost can cause unique drilling and production hazards which have caused blowouts.
Design and operation of hydrocarbon development facilities such as submarine pipelines or production structures require detailed knowledge about seabed processes and permafrost stability.


Fluid flux, gas flux and seabed settlement can create unique and fragile seafloor habitats (microbiology, benthic habitat, etc.)
Degradation of gas hydrates and release of free gas from warming permafrost could cause a significant atmospheric release of greenhouse gases.

Offshore Permafrost – RRA Considerations

Knowledge about seabed morphology and active geologic processes affecting Arctic shelf areas is limited as, until recently, these areas have been ice infested, limiting vessel access. While seabed mapping techniques have evolved significantly in recent years, there is also a significant challenge presented when investigating the Arctic shelf, as water depths are shallow and not suited to conventional ice breaker operations. The RRA aims to address the following key questions:

Is there adequate knowledge of the engineering properties of offshore permafrost to safely explore and develop offshore hydrocarbon resources? Is our state of knowledge and monitoring of offshore permafrost adequate to address key research questions?
Is the potential release of methane from degrading shelf permafrost and gas hydrates a significant gap in knowledge that may have global implications? Are there unique habitats and biogeochemical environments created by degrading shelf permafrost?
Because of the substantial logistical and technical challenges to study shallow shelf areas, is there a substantive need to seek enhanced international collaborations and a sharing of resources?

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Feedback on topics and considerations for RRA are welcome. Please feel free to submit confidential comments or suggestions.

We welcome contributions of stories and photos from northerners for possible inclusion in our RRA report or posting on our website.