North·In Depth

New report outlines climate change challenges on Canada's Arctic coast

Communities on Canada's longest — and most northern — coastline will soon have to combat vast challenges such as storms, floods, erosion and melting sea ice in the wake of climate change, according to a Natural Resources Canada report.

More than 70 per cent of all Canadian coasts located in the North

With more than 70 per cent of all Canadian coasts located in the North, this expansive area is one of the regions in need of close attention in light of climate change. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
Canada's longest — and most northern — coastline will soon have to combat vast challenges such as storms, floods, erosion and melting sea ice in the wake of climate change, according to a Natural Resources Canada report.
Canada has the longest coastline in the world, but the authors of a Natural Resources Canada report say a good picture of the effects of climate change on coastal areas was lacking. (From Canada’s marine coasts in a changing climate report.)

Canada's marine coasts in a changing climate offers a glimpse of the harsh environmental impacts of climate change that the country's Arctic coast, and the communities lining it, will have to take into account when planning for the future.

"It's well recognized globally that climate change impacts on the coast will be among the most significant," said Don Lemmen, the report's lead editor.

Canada's longest coastline

More than 70 per cent of Canada's over 200,000 kilometres of coastline — the most of any country in the world — is located in the North, and according to report author Nicole Couture, it's distinguished from the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines by one major factor.

"The defining factor is ice," said Couture. "Whether that's sea ice, or whether that's ground ice within the permafrost, those are two of the things that make Arctic coasts behave quite differently from coasts in more Southern regions."

In the Arctic coastlines changes are being seen on the land, the water and in the atmosphere. (Natural Resources Canada)
According to Couture, the effects of climate change are already being reflected in the land, the water and the atmosphere.

"For instance, you get warming or thawing of the permafrost," she said. "You're getting changes in air temperatures but also in wind, and you're also seeing changes in what's happening on the sea."

The result, said Couture, is the eroding of permafrost, flooding in low lying areas, increased storm activity and melting of sea ice.

Erosion in the Arctic occurs through a mechanical process — such as waves attacking a shoreline — as well as through a thermal process due to the warming temperature.

Couture said that many parts of the Beaufort Sea can see up to a metre of coastline lost each year due to erosion. However, some places that are rich in ground ice or exposed to high energy waves can have losses of up to 20 metres of coastline in a single year, particularly during a stormy year, or as a result of an intense storm.

Vulnerable communities

'Tuktoyaktuk is one of the communities that is on the front lines of coastal change in the Canadian Arctic,' said Nicole Couture, one of the report's authors. (from Canada’s marine coasts in a changing climate report)
Some coastal communities, such as Tuktoyaktuk, are already feeling the strain. The Northwest Territories hamlet has begun moving forward with plans to prevent erosion from eating away at the community

"Tuktoyaktuk is one of the communities that is on the front lines of coastal change in the Canadian Arctic," said Couture. "It's in an area that is very ice rich, there's a lot of ground ice within the permafrost, so it's quite easily erodible."

Erosion isn't the only issue facing Tuktoyaktuk. As a low-lying coastal community, it could also be susceptible to flooding, which could destroy vegetation and nearby water supplies with its salinity.

Trevor Bell, another author of the report, said that Nunavut communities like Kimmirut and Arctic Bay, with their low-lying fresh water supplies close to the coast, may also be affected by flooding in the future.

Impacts on infrastructure, fisheries, shipping

As infrastructure projects like new ports and homes are planned in Arctic coastal communities, Bell said that it's imperative that those in charge of planning consider the impacts of climate change.

Climate change will mean changes to the available fish stock on Canada's Arctic coast. Warming water temperatures could mean that current fish species are replaced with others better suited to the new temperatures. (Baffin Fisheries Coalition)
"You need to be thinking what is the conditions are going to be like in 50 years with respect to water levels, with respect to changing permafrost, with respect to changing sea ice," he said.   

One of the industries that could be affected is commercial fishing. Warming water along the coast will change the available fish stock, potentially replacing current fish populations with new species.

These changes will have implications for commercial fisheries moving forward, particularly when it comes to planning on which vessels to purchase and what infrastructure to invest in for processing their catch.

Bell also added that the opening of Northern waterways due to melting sea ice will have tremendous implications for shipping in the North. While it will create opportunities for tourism and more regular access to goods transported to remote communities, it will also creating environmental challenges and increase the need for search and rescue resources.

"It's about planning and incorporating any climate sensitivity into the issues that people are dealing with," said Bell.

Climate change adaptation

Lead SmartICE field technician Joey Angnatok (right), works closely with youth from the Going Off, Growing Strong program, Ruth Kohlmeister (left) and Josh Saksagiak (back), to take measurements at a SmartICE monitoring station near Nain, Nunatsiavut. (submitted by Trevor Bell)
Bell said one of the ways that communities and researchers are working together towards climate change adaptation is by creating usable data with projects like SmartICE.

"SmartICE tries to look at how can we improve the safety of sea ice travel for communities when climate change is making that sea ice more vulnerable or unpredictable," he said.

A Pan-territorial Adaptation Strategy was created in 2011 to bring together experts from the North to tackle climate change adaptation. The Strategy's working group has been working together for the past five years to generate information on best practices when it comes to climate change adaptation.

"Really, ensuring that understanding and knowledge of climate change adaptation and ensuring that it's mainstreamed into decision making is one of the most important steps in all of this," said Colleen Healey, the Climate Change Program Manager with the Government of Nunavut.

"If people don't understand what climate change is, they don't understand what the impacts are and they don't understand what their options are in dealing with it."

Healey said the working group has developed an adaptation training course to help government employees understand the importance of climate change adaptation when making decisions on issues such as infrastructure and energy plans for the future.


Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.