Researchers stunned by rapid rate of erosion on Herschel Island

The team from the University of Edinburgh has been monitoring effects of climate change on Yukon's north coast since 2008.

Team from University of Edinburgh has been monitoring effects of climate change on Yukon's north coast

Erosion near the Pauline Cove settlement on Herschel Island. (Submitted by Isla Myers-Smith/Team Shrub)

Researchers working on Herschel Island this summer say they witnessed rates of coastal erosion not seen in decades.

"Big chunks of soil and ground just breaking off. Then those chunks would fall into the waves and get eaten away by the waves every day," said Isla Myers-Smith, a researcher based at the University of Edinburgh.

Isla Myers-Smith from the University of Edinburgh planting Arctic willows from Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island in a common garden experiment in Kluane, Yukon. (Gergana Daskalova)

Coastal erosion isn't new to the area, said Myers-Smith, who has been studying climate change on Herschel Island since 2008. But the land is disappearing this year at what could be unprecedented speed, she said.

Myers-Smith said large blocks of land the size of garden sheds were breaking off into the ocean near the historic Pauline Cove settlement, threatening the foundations of prehistoric sod houses and the remains of a 19th-century whaling colony.

Herschel Island contains some of the oldest buildings in Yukon.

Pauline Cove has 12 standing buildings dating back to 1893.

Herschel Island lies five kilometres off the north coast of Yukon in the Beaufort Sea. (CBC)

The Yukon government's manager of historic sites, Barb Hogan, said the parks branch began moving buildings in 2002 to protect them from erosion. Others have been raised.

"Currently one of the buildings, a warehouse, is still fairly close to the shoreline and when storms occur waves are lapping at its foundation," said Hogan.

"So we're looking at different ways to protect these historic buildings. We're looking at ways to allow them to dry out between the storms. And looking at ways to see if we need to protect the shoreline," she said.

Myers-Smith and her team were on the island for two months. She said the rapid erosion peaked in mid-July and then eased off.

An aerial shot of the slumping that happens on Herschel Island as underground ice melts and the earth turns to mud. (Andrew Cunliffe)

Her team used drone imagery to quantify what they had seen at ground level and it confirmed their belief that the erosion was rapid.

There's not much that can be done to stop the erosion once it starts, Myers-Smith said.

"I think it's something we just have to recognize about this area, these are sensitive permafrost environments, and when conditions change, disturbances can happen.

"It's this magical place for me," said Myers-Smith.

"When you're standing along those coastlines, watching the waves crashing away, and eating away at the land underneath your feet. It's pretty dramatic," she said.

Her team will continue to monitor changes on the island.

More of the erosion near Pauline Cove. (Submitted by Isla Myers-Smith/Team Shrub)