'Spontaneous' landslides possible for Baffin Island thanks to similar topography to Greenland

A changing climate could mean more events like the landslide and localized tsunami in Greenland are on the way for the Arctic.

Climate change could cause more frequent landslides in the North

A 300-metre wide, 1,000-metre high rock slid into the sea off this mountain, near the Greenland village of Nuugaatsiaq, on Saturday night, causing a tsunami. This video, taken on Sunday, shows the aftermath. (Video courtesy of Kunuunnguaq Petersen Geisler) 1:35

More events like the landslide and localized tsunami in Greenland could be on the way for the Arctic thanks to a changing climate.

Four are now assumed dead after they were washed out to sea while still in their homes following a water surge that flooded the small community of Nuugaatsiaq, Greenland. The flood was caused by a landslide on a nearby mountain that crashed into the sea across from the community on June 17.

Nick Ackerley, a seismologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, says the north shore of Baffin Island bears similarities to the western shore of Greenland, with steep slopes and deep fjords cutting inland.

"It's very much possible that something like this, that a landslide itself, could happen on Baffin Island and communities near it would be at risk."

While the exact cause of the landslide near Nuugaatsiaq has not been determined, Ackerley theorizes it could have something to do with Greenland's rapidly melting ice sheet.

He said melting ice can change the pressure or amount of sediment in the water. That, compounded by the steep angle of the mountain side, could have sparked the landslide.

A still from a video shot on the shoreline of Nuugaatsiaq after tsunami waves struck the coast of Greenland on Saturday. (Olina Angie K Nielsen/Facebook)

It could also have been that ice holding the rock face together melted, weakening the mountain structure, he said.

"All the signs point towards there being a single very large landslide event without a triggering earthquake beforehand. It seems to more or less have spontaneously slid into the ocean," Ackerley said.

The large amount of rock and earth hitting the water is what caused the wave, he said. In Greenland, the landslide was approximately 300 metres by 1,000 metres in surface area.

On the Baffin coast, if land gave way in a fjord, the fjord would likely contain the wave. It would only be the communities within sight of a landslide area that would be affected.

He suggested communities that look out over mountains should investigate their surrounding area for unstable cliffs.

Is Nunavut prepared?

Ed Zebedee, director of Nunavut emergency management, agrees that advanced planning would be ideal, but right now the department is focusing on general emergency response plans.

"We're really good at responding, the trick for us in the future will be to try and mitigate some of the issues that we have so that the response isn't so costly and that maybe we can prevent some of them."

Ed Zebedee, the director of protection services, says three communities are still without a general emergency plan. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet, two communities with stunning mountain vistas, are also two of the three communities in the territory without even a general emergency plan — though Zebedee says they're close to finalizing plans.

He says creating a plan specifically in response to something like what happened in Greenland is not practical because major events are so rare.

"You can't plan for a lot of this stuff. What you can plan for is having a structure in place so that when something does happen you have the people and the resources to respond."

His team works with each community in Nunavut to ensure there is someone in the hamlet ready to take charge and coordinate emergency response within the community and reach out to the territorial and federal governments for resources, if necessary.

Zebedee says at the individual level, Nunavummiut can prepare by having flashlights, batteries, cash, and other necessities available in an emergency kit.

With files from Jane Sponagle