Sinking into the sea

The coastline of the Northwest Territories is
eroding faster than scientists can measure it

In late August, the temperature of the Beaufort Sea hovers just above 10 degrees Celsius. For some people, the first steps into the water might be invigorating, but if you linger, it becomes stingingly painful — which is why Dustin Whalen came prepared with large rubber chest waders.

This was not a personal mission to dip a toe in chilly Arctic waters and come away with photographic proof. On the contrary, the federal government scientist was looking for a time-lapse camera, one of three that met a watery end by the very forces they were meant to capture: rapid erosion on what may be the world’s fastest-disappearing island.

“This is our third year trying, and as of today, this is our third year failing,” said Whalen, who works for Natural Resources Canada. “We really can’t predict just how the island will change.”

That’s why they keep losing their cameras — ground that once looked stable and safe has ended up slumping away, carrying with it the scientists’ gear and their hope of capturing the change in real time.

Pelly, the island in question, lies about 100 kilometres northwest of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., a hamlet largely known for its remoteness. The island’s only permanent tenant is an Environment Canada weather station, which is monitored by scientists remotely.

Four years ago, they noticed how fast the ridge around Pelly Island was crumbling, which is why Whalen and other scientists with Natural Resources Canada boarded a helicopter each summer to take a closer look.

Whalen said the average rate of erosion for an island in this area is about 1.5 metres a year. What they have found on Pelly is that it’s washing away by as much as 40 metres each summer.

“The beauty of this site is that we can almost see the change right before our eyes,” said Whalen.

Time-lapse video taken by Natural Resources Canada captured erosion over the course of several weeks in June and July 2015. (Natural Resources Canada)

Time-lapse video taken by Natural Resources Canada captured erosion over the course of several weeks in June and July 2015. (Natural Resources Canada)

And you can hear it. When CBC accompanied researchers on this year’s visit to Pelly, muddy clumps dropped off the top of cliffs and a steady stream of water trickled out from an exposed section of the island.

Aerial footage demonstrates how much of the water around Pelly Island has become brown and murky from erosion. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

Aerial footage demonstrates how much of the water around Pelly Island has become brown and murky from erosion. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

Aerial footage demonstrates how much of the water around Pelly Island has become brown and murky from erosion. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

Beneath Pelly’s green tundra lies ice, sediment and permafrost. To illustrate that, Whalen grabbed a shovel and started scraping it against the surface until a layer of white crystals was exposed.

“This is the ice that is frozen in the cliff, “ he said. “And now it is melting.”

Melting permafrost and ice is visible along the coast of the Mackenzie Delta. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

Melting permafrost and ice is visible along the coast of the Mackenzie Delta. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

Melting permafrost and ice is visible along the coast of the Mackenzie Delta. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

The challenge for Whalen and his colleagues has been how to accurately capture that transformation. Their three attempts to leave the time-lapse cameras on the island failed after their equipment toppled over with the earth.

The unstable ridge means it’s dangerous for people to get close to the top of the cliffs or approach them from below. The waves have eaten away at sections of the base, and the large heavy slabs on top are poised to come crashing down at any moment.

Drone video of Pelly Island. (Natural Resources Canada)

Drone video of Pelly Island. (Natural Resources Canada)

That’s why most of the surveying is done from above, with a drone. It takes overlapping photographs that allow the scientists to develop a 3D model of Pelly Island and other coastlines they are surveying in Canada’s changing Arctic.

“Obviously, there is a bunch of climate-driven factors,” said Whalen. “Warmer air temperatures, warmer sea water, more storms, these kind of things are affecting the entire region.”

In the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, erosion has been pushing the Inuvialuit community further inland for decades. “Tuk,” as it’s called locally, is made up of a few hundred mostly wood-framed buildings scattered across a spit of land jutting into the Beaufort Sea.

(Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

Many islands on the Beaufort coast are seeing dramatic erosion. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

Many islands on the Beaufort coast are seeing dramatic erosion. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

At the tip of Tuk is a scenic, gravelly sliver known as “the Point.” A few benches line the rocky coast, but no development is allowed here anymore. In the past few decades both a school and the RCMP detachment were moved away from this area and further inland.

Last fall, a building that belonged to Tuktoyaktuk’s public works department was demolished after it toppled over when the earth gave way.

“The erosion has accelerated,” said Darrel Nasogaluak, Tuk’s mayor. He explained that longer summers and fiercer storms mean the coast is crumbling in front of them, while the permafrost melts beneath their feet.

“All it would take is one or two big storms and the houses you see behind me would be greatly at risk.” He pointed to four homes perched on top of the jagged shore. In front of them are large boulders that were brought up to Tuk on barges and put on the beach as a barrier against erosion. It hasn’t worked. 

Last winter, four homes had to be removed from this block because they were dangerously close to ending up in the sea. Nasogaluak said another four will have to be moved this year.

Sandy Adam owns one of those homes and lives there with 13 family members. He said his four-bedroom house used to have a large yard that extended 30 metres behind his home, complete with a shed where he kept his skidoos and equipment tools.

Now, the shed is gone and his equipment and tools are scattered beside his house on a shrinking patch of earth. Today, there are fewer than two metres of land between the back of his home and the large boulders that are bolstering the weakened coast.

“Every time the water rise up, all that rock washed away, now it is starting to slide again,” said Adam. He has lived here since the early ’90s and likes the spot because he can look out and see beluga whales swim by.

“I like being close to the water,” he admitted, but ”not this close.”

Adam’s biggest concern is that there is no place for his three grandchildren to play anymore. The young girls scramble over boulders to get down to the water where they wade.

“When my grandkids play outside, I am scared they may break their legs,” he said. “I need a place for them to play besides these rocks.”

Sandy Adam and his granddaughter. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Sandy Adam and his granddaughter. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Sandy Adam and his granddaughter. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Adam wants to move his home, but needs to first find a safe spot to put it — and a way to pay for it. Officials in Tuk have applied to the federal government for funding to help the community adapt to climate change, but the shoreline around Tuk is not the only erosion they are watching.

Across from the community’s harbour lies the uninhabited Tuk Island, which acts as a buffer: It bears the brunt of waves from the Beaufort Sea, thus protecting the community’s harbour. The problem is that Tuk Island, too, is eroding quickly.

In August, scientists from Northumbria University in London, UK, set up a time-lapse camera on the island to try to capture the scale and timing of the erosion.

Inuvialuit have travelled along the Mackenzie Delta for hundreds of years. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Inuvialuit have travelled along the Mackenzie Delta for hundreds of years. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Inuvialuit have travelled along the Mackenzie Delta for hundreds of years. (Chris Corday/CBC)

They are hoping their equipment fares better than the cameras that have been left on Pelly Island.

Despite their struggles, Whalen and his team aim to return next summer to see how much the landscape has changed. Judging from aerial photos taken during the 1950s, Whalen estimated that Pelly used to stretch 1.2 kilometres further out in the sea.

“I think we only have another kilometre to go. So let’s say [in] another 50 years, this island will be gone.”

(Chris Corday/CBC)

(Chris Corday/CBC)

(Chris Corday/CBC)

Producer: Chris Corday