You know how you see a few friends every day for years and don’t recognize anything different about them, but spend a couple months apart and suddenly whoa, they’re an entirely new person? They’ve aged. Too much partying or something. It’s not a different haircut. They’ve just…changed. And if you’re old enough to have experienced your 10-year high school reunion then you definitely know what this is like. And it’s a fair analogy for our changing planet.
A study from the University of Alaska conducted between 2007 and 2016 gave proof to just how much and how fast our planet is changing. From 1955 to 1979, the permafrost coastline of Drew Point in Alaska’s North Slope region retreated at a rate of about 23 feet per year. From 2007 to 2016, however, the shoreline eroded at a rate of 56 feet per year. By the final year of the study, the rate of erosion had risen to 72 feet. When researchers calculated that over the five and a half mile area around Drew Point they estimated that about 30 football fields of coastline are lost a year between Utqiaġvik (previously Barrow), the northernmost U.S. city, and Prudhoe Bay.
So what’s happening here? As pointed out, erosion here has been a constant and is nothing new. Every year, the snow thaws and sea ice recedes, opening the shore up to the waves so the ocean can take a little bit of that shoreline out with it. Researchers believe the increased rate of erosion is their way of watching climate change in action. The “open water season” when the coast is beset by waves is now significantly longer than the old 90-day window that used to occur in past decades.
“Bringing the level of the sea up to the base of the bluff eats away at the base of the ice-rich permafrost, eroding it both thermally and mechanically,” says Benjamin Jones of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and leader of the study.