Arctic communities are living in a future nobody wants

A CGI rendering of arctic terrain

The main stem of the Mackenzie River flows wild and uninterrupted by dams across Canada, as it has since the recession of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Draining the eastern end of the Great Slave Lake, the river meanders for more than 1,600 northwesterly kilometers through gnarled stands of black spruce before fanning out across the treeless arctic tundra, depositing sediment in a delta stretching from the Yukon territories in the west to the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk on its east branch. At its terminus, the Mackenzie finally discharges more than 325 cubic kilometers of fresh water into the Arctic Ocean each year, accounting for roughly 11 percent of the world's total river flow into the Arctic Ocean.

At the mouth of the Mackenzie, some 950 residents of the hamlet of Tuk live in homes, elevated slightly above the permafrost to prevent their houses from heating the permanently frozen ground. Pastel buildings and telephone poles rise above the white expanse of sea ice and tundra. Higher still are the pingoes—ice hills, superficially covered with vegetation, pushed up for centuries by a lens of remnant ice left by a drained lake. To the south of Tuk, Ibyuk Pingo towers impressively on the horizon like a volcanic island over the halcyon sea of ice and permafrost, meandering creeks and countless lakes.

In the winter, folks in Tuk watch the sun set for the last time on November 28th and celebrate its return on January 13th. The average February temperature is –26°C. Lows regularly dip to the point of convergence between Celsius and Fahrenheit: -40°. Ski-Doos brap across the crust of snow on Tuk’s lakes and lands and ocean. The frigid Arctic breeze blows snow drifts flush with the coastline, creating a barely perceptible threshold between landfast ice and frozen soil, were it not for the orange life rings and overturned rowboats marking definitively, the edge of North America and the Arctic Ocean.

This fixed line between sea and shore is merely seasonal, however. On May 18th, the sun will rise above the horizon and circle the coastal hamlet continuously until finally setting for a brief hour on July 25th. Under the midnight sun, the sea ice will melt, and the Arctic Ocean will beat relentlessly against the permafrost bluffs along the Western Arctic coast, and the increasingly warm summer air will thaw ancient ice, causing cliffs to erode and massive swaths of land to slump into mudflows. For residents of Tuktoyaktuk, longer, warmer summers have been making life more difficult for the last 40 years.

As Richard Gruben, Vice-President of the Tuktoyaktuk Hunter and Trappers Committee puts it, Tuk is “a traditional community. Just about everybody here travels around and hunts off the land and fishes our waters.” Because of this, Gruben and other Tuk residents are especially aware of climate change and its impacts: Summer storms are more frequent and intense, animal migration habits have changed and the community must prepare earlier in the year to harvest beluga whale, which arrive three weeks earlier than they used to, says Gruben. But of all the many tangible climate change impacts, none may be bigger than coastal erosion and permafrost slump.

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

Though coastal erosion is a challenge for nearly every marine coastal community facing pressures of storms and sea level rise, it is particularly emergent for places like Tuk, built on permafrost. Wave action eats away at coastal bluffs, exposing ancient ice to melt in continuous daylight, threatening buildings and infrastructure, exposing artifacts and muddying the waters of the Beaufort Sea.

In 1982, the sea swallowed Tuktoyaktuk’s curling rink after a storm eroded permafrost that the seaside end of the building sat on. Ten years ago, a government building fell halfway into the ocean, and had to be moved back inland. Over the past 40 years, at least two homes have been completely swallowed by the waters. Today, the femur-shaped Tuktoyaktuk Island, which protects the harbor from the ocean, is now in danger. The guardian spit of permafrost is eroding at a rate of about 1.1 meters per year, and might cease to break waves by 2050.

Mayor Erwin Elias, a lifelong resident of Tuk, cites coastal erosion as the number one issue facing the hamlet.

“The harbor is the lifeline for the community. That’s one of the main reasons Tuk is where it is today,” said Mayor Elias. “We’re a traditional fishing village, and Tuk Island is a natural wavebreak for us. If we lose that, we will lose our harbor, and I think everything will be pretty rapid after that in terms of erosion.”

The banks of the freshwater lakes inland from the Beaufort Sea are also made of ice-rich permafrost. Permanent ice, frozen during the last ice age, gives the soil structure and keeps the water contained. But warmer summers deepen the portion of the permafrost around each lake that thaws annually, until the permafrost slumps away, creating receding bluffs that creep closer and closer to each lake’s edge. Eventually, the cliff wall meets the affected lake and water pours over the exposed black soil and ice. The rushing waterfall eats away at the bank as lake water and sediment rush downstream. The effects are immediate. A lake formed between 13,000 and 8,000 years ago transformed into a mudflat in less than a day.

Paul Voudrac, a recently retired government wildlife observer, 66, lives a two-hour drive south along the newly constructed Tuktoyaktuk-Inuvik highway in the regional hub of Inuvik.Every winter when he was a kid in the early '60s, his dad would take his whole family on a trek from their home in Tuktoyaktuk, 112 kilometers east to their cabin on Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. After the snow and freeze-up that used to happen in October, they’d make the four-day trip by dogsled to hunt and fish and trap around the Husky Lakes, a brackish estuary emptying into Liverpool Bay. When SkiDoos became popular in the late '60s, travel time changed from days to hours. And changes to the landscape began to alter well-known trails.

Permafrost thawing and slumping suddenly met the edge of lakes with increasing frequency, eroding their banks and draining them. Instead of familiar open areas of ice and snow good for winter travel, Voudrac’s family was instead met with dense willow flats—making travel difficult, and disrupting long standing trails used by the Inuvialuit.

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

“On lakes we’ve traveled for years the willows rose up from the ground to about ten feet high, and we had to cut a trail through in order to get by it,” Voudrac recalls. “We were used to traveling where we went by. We had trails, one to the north, one straight to the west—always by the ice. And then we started seeing a lot of changes happening to the trails from Tuktoyaktuk. My dad passed away in 1973, and that trail west has been very little use since.”

Voudrac has noticed other changes, too—the massive, saline Husky Lake used to freeze over completely every year, forming 2.5 meters of ice in the winter months. In recent years, folks have begun to observe open water in the winter. Paul also joked that “thirty below used to be springtime weather for us. T-shirt weather. But now, you get down to about twenty below and you start feeling it. We’re spoiled, I should say. We can’t change as fast as the weather can.”

Permafrost is defined as any soil that remains continuously frozen for two or more years. If you were to dig down into permafrost on a summer day, you’d first break through an insulating dense mat of hardy tundra plants—sedges, grasses, rushes. Then, you’d reach the active layer: soil that freezes and thaws every year with the seasons. Below that is a mixture of rock, dirt and varying levels of ice that stays frozen year round. Go even deeper — anywhere between one and 1,500 meters depending on where you are, and you’d reach frost-free soil again, where geothermal heat warms the earth's crust above freezing temperature.

As far as dirt goes, permafrost is also particularly sensitive to climate change. Increases in air temperatures increase the depth of the “active layer” of the permafrost, thawing ice and destabilizing the soil's structure. Warming permafrost causes what are called retrogressive thaw slumps—landslides caused by the melting of ground ice in the permafrost. These slumps often form with a semicircular headwall, receding into the stable permafrost. Inside the half ring of exposed permafrost cliff of the headwall runs a black, boggy mudflow.

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

Perhaps nowhere are permafrost slumps so rapidly forming as Banks Island, a the fifth-largest island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. In 1984, there were 63 instances of regressive thaw slumps on Banks Island. By 2016, there were more than 4,000 observable thaw slumps.

Field Notes — Aulavik National Park

Though it is hard to get to, and Aulavik National Park in the northern end of the island receives an average of 10 annual visitors, Banks Island remains and has been inhabited by the Inuvialuit for centuries. One site in Aulavik on a bend in the Thompsen, called Head Hill, has thousands of downturned muskox skulls and dozens of rock piles used to dry meat and cache food, for many years during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Scientists can observe slumps from satellite imagery,* but studying permafrost in the field can be incredibly difficult (a trip to Aulavik National Park from Inuvik costs roughly $23,000 Canadian dollars in fuel one way). It is practical to go only during the summer months of July and August, and even with a generous weather window, it is possible to either get “weathered out” from arriving, or else stuck in place on the island. There is also the issue of polar bears — conducting research in the region requires hiring a full-time bear monitor, whose sole job is to wield a rifle and watch for bears.

Field Notes — Google Earth

Researcher Antoni G. Lewkowicz assigned senior undergraduate students at the University of Ottawa a transect of 5,000 km2 each to analyze on Google Earth. Using the Google Earth Engine Timelapse dataset, slumps in 1984 were compared to 2016. Models from Lewkowicz and Way’s study estimated that slump occurrences will rise from 4,000 in 2016 to an estimated 10,000 on Banks Island by 2075.

Even if the stars align, it’s a tough trip. Usually, a crew composed of Parks Canada researchers and local Inuvilauit hired to assist with the field work pack gear and enough food for two weeks and board a plane equipped with tundra tires. Flying from Inuvik to Sachs Harbor, the crew lands on an unimproved tundra field marked with six fuel canisters, weighed down with sand. From there, the crew stays one night at the barebones “green cabin”—the only park-managed building in all of Aulavik National Park.

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

Despite the challenges, researchers across North America are invested in researching the site. In 2015, Parks Canada researchers ventured on a canoe survey of the park's Thompsen river. The paddlers noticed that water coming from some of the tributaries was unusually muddy and turbid. Wondering where the cloudy water and debris was coming from, they hiked up a few of the tributaries and found dozens of slumps feeding into the Thompsen.

More recently, Colleen Arnison, Resource Conservation Manager and Hayleigh Conway, Geomatics Technician took return trips to Aulavik National park to study water quality in the Thompsen and use unmanned aerial vehicles to create three-dimensional models of the slumps, with the goal of calculating how deep and large they are, along with a study of the water quality. The team took samples above the slump, where water drained, and downstream, as well as samples from the Thompsen downstream from the tributaries.

When I sat down this spring with Arnison and Conway in the Western Arctic Field Unit in Inuvik, Conway explained to me that the scale of permafrost slumps can often be lost in the expansiveness of the Arctic landscape—seeing pictures of the slumps pales in comparison to the experience of witnessing them with boots on the ground. Though slumps are a natural phenomenon, “the rate at which they’re happening is unprecedented. And it’s such a scar on the landscape,” she said. Pointing to a picture of a particularly large semi-circular slump with a steep headwall and mud flowing to an outlet stream, she added,“this is bananas.”

Ecologist Colleen Arnision also talked about the unbelievable experience of traveling through slump areas.

“It’s unreal to see the color change. You’ll be paddling along, and though the Thompsen River is not clear, it’s cloudy, it gets black as soon as you hit the little stream coming down from the slumps. It is so difficult to even walk along the beaches because it is so mucky. You get completely stuck in the sediments deposited in the river downstream from the slumps,” said Arnison.

A CGI rendering of arctic terrain

Eventually, the Thompsen flows into the Arctic Ocean, part of why Arnison, Conway, and other Parks Canada researchers are studying water quality on rivers flowing through the tundra in Aulavik, Ivvavik and Tuktuk Nogait National Parks. The effects aren't just topographic, either. Already researchers have noticed that the change in sediments in the Thompsen River have completely altered the benthic invertebrate community.

“We haven't done enough research yet to know how that's impacting fish, and that's still work ongoing that we need to do. But, at least it's indicating what potentially will be happening in rivers throughout the region,” said Arnison.

For their upcoming water quality studies, the researchers seek to document how quickly slumps erode, the amount of sediment in the slumps, as well as some of the more nefarious components of permafrost—for example, heavy metals like mercury. Bound to cellular receptors in ancient plants, mercury makes its way into permafrost and accumulates. Today, a huge portion (1656 ± 962 kilotons) of the world’s mercury is contained in northern hemisphere permafrost, compared to some 800 kilotons stored in other soils and the ocean combined.

As a result, permafrost slumps release sediment, carbon, mercury, radon—a slurry of preserved organic matter—into the ocean where it can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems. Changes to fish migration patterns, harmful consequences for marine mammals—beluga whales, seals, polar bears—are all major potential downstream consequences from these inland slumps. But ocean impact remains a major question for the scientific community studying thawing permafrost. Until more is done, we won't know its full effects.

Field Notes — A note about permafrost

The microbes which decompose organic material aren’t as active in permafrost as they are in other soils. Consequently, things like carbon, anthrax30,000 year-old seedsmammoth remains and more accumulate and are preserved very close to the state they were in when encased in year-round frozen soil. When permafrost thaws, organic matter of antiquity is released back into the environment in its preserved and sometimes viable state, much the same way an old ribeye might still be intact and perhaps edible after years in a deep freezer. In 2016, a reindeer killed by anthrax some 75 years earlier resurfaced due to thawing permafrost, causing a child fatality, dozens of hospitalizations and over 2,000 reindeer fatalities in the region.

Despite it’s position more than 321 km north of the Arctic Circle, the wide Mackenzie Delta and much of the Beaufort Sea coast was not glaciated during the last ice age. According to the Bering Land Bridge theory, large portions of landmass of Beringia—stretching from the contemporary Lena River in Russia across the Arctic Coast to the Mackenzie Delta—remained dry, unglaciated and peopled throughout the last ice age, due to lack of significant moisture. The Beaufort portion of the Beringia Land Bridge allowed for people to migrate east and then south into the rest of North America. Historically speaking, the Beaufort Delta has been populated, perhaps, longer than almost any other landscape in North America.

Some artifacts found there are very recent and very important to local communities, like sod houses on the coast, the birthplace of some Inuvialuit elders who now live in Aklavik, Inuvik, and Tuktoyaktuk. Others are ancient: Tent rings from human habitation at least 11,000 years ago are present on and in the permafrost all along the Beaufort coast. Nearly every single artifact in the Beaufort region, no matter its age, shares the imminent threat of erosion.

study by the Alfred Wegener Institute suggests that somewhere between 45 percent and 61 percent of all of the cultural sites along the Beaufort Sea coast will be eroded by 2100. This includes sod houses, driftwood log cabins, metal warehouses, as well as particularly sensitive artifacts, like Inuvialuit childhood homes, vacated only a generation ago. Headwalls of permafrost slumps sometimes recede through burial sites, exposing human remains on the mudflat below.

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

There is hardly a better place to keep sensitive artifacts than in the matrix of permafrost that has been preserving them for decades, centuries or millennia—and contextualized within a framework of other artifacts. But, increasingly, stakeholders are forced to choose between excavation, allowing for natural erosion, or trying to slow down erosion by planting trees or creating some kind of structure to keep sediments in place.

On the one hand, excavations allow for communities to learn about cultural sites, and pass down knowledge to youth. But, on the other, is the challenge of what to do with artifacts that have been excavated. There aren’t adequate facilities in the Inuvik region to house and preserve most excavated artifacts—the closest facility is the Prince of Wales Heritage Center 685 miles away in Yellowknife.

There is also the problem of accessibility. Ivvavik National Park covers nearly four thousand square miles—larger than Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming—but due to its remoteness it only receives 100 or so visitors a year in addition to the Inuvialuit Beneficiaries traveling and using the land for traditional purposes. Even a well-funded researcher might only be able to spend a week or two in the field every year studying at the park. Meanwhile, the pace of coastal erosion far exceeds the ability of communities and researchers to document artifacts before they erode out of the permafrost and into the Arctic Ocean.

Field Notes — Western Arctic Field Unit

Four of the parks co-managed by the Western Arctic Field Unit (Aluavik, Tuktuk Nogait, Ivvavik and the Pingo Canadian Landmark) were created at the request of the Inuvialuit and is part of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement—largely to protect caribou calving grounds. While lands like Tuktuk Nogait might only receive fewer than two visitors from southern Canada or elsewhere in a given year, Inuvialuit communities make more frequent use of them for traditional activities.

For Ashley Piskor, Cultural Resource Manager for Parks Canada in the Western Arctic Field office, there is no set protocol for managing artifacts. Each one comes with a host of options: to provide structure to slow down erosion processes, to move archaeological features like houses further back from the ocean and erosion sites, to excavate. There's also the option to document as much as possible, make information digitally available, and allow erosion to occur unabated.

Long term, Piskor says, “There's no feasible way to stop the erosion, you're just mitigating the effects of it.” But, documenting, taking photographs, and exploring non-invasive archaeological methods like ground-penetrating radar can allow for a kind of virtual park experience—helpful for sharing knowledge about the lands in Ivvavik National Park well beyond the small group of people who are typically able to visit it.

For coastal communities like Tuktoyaktuk, preservation of community infrastructure is an even more urgent battle. Mayor Erwin Elias says there has been a sharp increase in the rate of erosion in his hamlet, resulting in several on-the-ground climate change crises.

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

“Overall, I think our shoreline has been fairly stable until the last five to six years. There has been a dramatic change in the way the shoreline has moved—a lot of that has to do with the storm surges and obviously, the melting of the permafrost.”

Paul Voudrac’s brother, Freddie, still lives in Tuktoyaktuk and is one of many residents affected. Freddie Voudrac was born east of town on the Tuktoyaktuk peninsula, enjoying summers in the country or in a boat travelling with his family. Now, Freddie lives on a lakeshore near the point of Tuktoyaktuk. When his house was built, the lake was completely separate from the ocean. Now, “When there's a storm surge here in the summertime, water is starting to reach here. Right out my doorstep. That never used to occur,” Freddie said.

Aside from the ocean creeping up to his family’s home, Freddie now has to re-acclimate to new landmarks every summer, too. “You see slumping and coastal erosion all over the coast, right down to Herschel Island.”

When he is out fishing, the changing landscape makes it harder to navigate—every year there are new coastal bluffs to learn, different landmarks to help orient folks traveling by boat. “A hill is gone... a point moved. It makes it hard to navigate with a boat in the summer. You have to adapt.”

There are other changes, too. Migratory birds come and go at odd times of the year. Last season, Freddie witnessed a black guillemot in Tuktoyaktuk’s harbor for the first time. Salmon, usually a rare occurrence, swam up through the harbor in abundance last summer. Arctic cotton, a perennial sedge, sprouts in much higher frequency and density than it used to 20 years ago.

For Voudrac and his neighbors, changes to the shoreline, climate and animal numbers migration patterns mean adapting from the lifestyle they experienced growing up. Government regulations on the Bluenose caribou herd have limited hunting for the last two years, which means local hunters must spend more time working as heavy machinery operators to buy beef from the Northmart, instead of relying on caribou meat. “I’d say caribou is sort of a delicacy now, very hard to get. I rarely eat it. You see, I’m adapting. Got no choice but to adapt.”

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

“My biggest concern is what my grandson is going to go through," Voudrac adds, "what kind of change he’s going to go through compared to mine. Because I’ve got to try to inform him all about how I grew up, I’m doing that by telling him that, for his grandparents, life is different now.

“I don’t think my grandkids will have my lifestyle anymore; my lifestyle must be finished with me. I think anyway, I don’t know. The lifestyle I had—we’ll never get it back. We’ll never live like the way I used to live. They’ll never experience it, just what I could tell them.”

Freddie’s 10-year-old grandson, Peter, has also lived long enough to observe changes and feel the effects of the changing climate. He tells me that he can’t sled on his favorite sledding hill anymore because climate change has caused willows to sprout up, poking through the snow. I told him I was sorry to hear about his sledding hill — he told me it was alright—he was much more interested in BMX now.

Warmer air and water temperatures not only destabilize coastal permafrost in Tuktoyaktuk, but also speed up the thawing process in the early summer. Landfast ice around Kugmallit Bay broke up sometime around the second week of July, 50 years ago. In 2019, the sea ice broke up at the start of the second week in June—an entire month more ice-free time for storms and wave action to eat away at the exposed coastal bluffs along Kugmallit Bay.

In addition to longer exposure times, warmer air temperatures have made the Beaufort region stormier. Summer storms are longer, harsher, more frequent, and occur during more of the season than 50 years ago, when sea ice came approximately three weeks earlier in the fall and left three weeks later in the spring.

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

Dustin Whalen is a physical scientist for Natural Resources Canada, and an often-cited resource for researchers and communities in the Beaufort region. When I spoke to him over the phone, he was preparing to depart for the Arctic coast to talk with local hunter and trapper committees. While there, he would also restart ocean weather stations measuring changes to the seabed and monitoring temperature and wave action that had “gone dark” after solar panels stopped powering them during the five-week Arctic night.

He was also getting ready to monitor the 2020 summer field season where coastal storms and wave action will likely further erode Tuktoyaktuk’s coastline, and the permafrost coast across the Beaufort. Whalen has been observing these changes to the land and sea around Tuktoyaktuk since 2004.

“Obviously, in 16 years I’ve seen changes. But what’s so fascinating and amazing about the place is that even in the short time-scale of two or three years we’re seeing changes,” said Whalen.

These changes, he says, are undeniably driven by the changes to the climate we often read about in the news: increased air temperature due to greenhouse gasses and decreased Arctic sea ice.

The effects are often immediate, too. While the rate of coastal erosion is certainly observable on the scale of decades and years, dramatic changes in coastal bluff structure can occur in less than 24 hours, often before and after a storm. Pelly Island, in the Beaufort Sea just north of the Mackenzie Delta, is hit so hard by coastal storms it may wash away entirely in the next few decades.

“You could argue that coastal permafrost is thawing at the same scale we’re seeing on plateaus and lakes inland—but here it’s thawing into the ocean. We’re monitoring that, but I think the story continues on. What is the impact of that on the ocean? To the marine ecosystem? To the marine mammals?”

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

Aside from the monumental task of reversing the effects of greenhouse gasses warming up the Arctic, mitigation methods for coastal erosion in the region are challenging, and impossible to implement on a large scale. On a smaller scale however to protect people’s homes and coastline cabins, re-vegetation might prove a possible mitigation solution to slow down slumping. Slumps impacting archaeological sites like whaling villages and ancient sediments, at risk of eroding into the water before they are able to be studied could also benefit from coastal restoration.

Researcher Erika Hille has worked with the Tuktoyaktuk Hunter and Trappers Committee to identify slump sites with the most significance for the Tuk community to target for restoration. Hille is also the lead on a team of Aurora Research Institute scientists and environmental monitors from the Inuvialuit Land Administration working to develop a guide to revegetating thaw slumps along the Beaufort Coast. Started in 2017, the project is a five-year effort to gain an understanding of the rate of coastal erosion, develop maps, monitor effects to the landscape and Kugmallit Bay, and finally, determine if indigineous plant species can be used to stabilize thaw slumps along the Beaufort Sea coast.

“Actually very little is known about Arctic coastal restoration so that’s what prompted this study,” said Hille. “It’s threatening not only the infrastructure of Tuktoyaktuk, but cultural and archaeological sites, hunting grounds, people’s houses—and now they’re moving into looking at proactive ways of maintaining those sites.”

In 2018, and again last season, Hille and her team of researchers used drones to survey slump sites. The high-resolution photogrammetric imagery allows them to calculate the volumes of slumps, and with new drone data every year, the team will be able to calculate how much the volume is changing. That will help quantify how much sediment dumps into Kugmallit Bay. Supplementing information from water quality data sampled from the slumps, their research aims to get a clearer picture of what the impact of slump and erosion is on the water quality in the Beaufort Sea.

A CGI rendering of arctic terrain

Hille and her team primarily seeks to provide a model for slump restoration. One of the major problems with permafrost slump is that it is a self-perpetuating problem—the refrigerating layer of vegetation on top of the active layer of permafrost usually works to keep ice frozen during the warmer July and August days. When slump occurs, huge swaths of permafrost open up in the mudflow beneath the headwall, exposing even more ice to thaw in the sun.

When the project began, Hille's team sought to analyze the effectiveness of seeding the mudflows of slumps with native arctic plant species, restoring the insulating layer of vegetation and slowing the erosion. But after observing slump sites, they decided to focus on transplanting sod—large chunks of organic material and vegetation deposited at the “toe” of a slump, closer to the shoreline. These vegetation islands can actually insulate well enough to keep permafrost frozen underneath the islands, though the mineral soil is exposed all around it.

Taking one meter by one meter chunks of sod and replanting them back into recently stabilized sections of slump, the team next installed ground temperature sensors beneath them to see if sod was a more feasible method of revegetating slump sites within the five year timeframe of the project.

According to Hille, reseeding is tricky in practice because “for the plant to grow and establish, and then for the organic layer to redevelop it would take a really, really long time. The slump might reoccur before the effects would actually take place."

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

So far, the team, as planned, has reseeded a few plots. “We’re monitoring those plots to see if we’re able to actually seed faster than the wind can. That is an option, but in terms of reestablishing the permafrost I think we’re feeling more positive about the sod,” said Hille.

“We’re focusing on thaw slumps because the vegetation might actually be an appropriate way to control some of them, but on some sites—where you have massive blocking occuring, or enormous thaw slumps with huge slurries where vegetation would just be washed away—revegetation might not be an option for those bigger sites. And unfortunately those are pretty common along the coastline,” Hille explained.

For his part, Mayor Erwin Elias welcomes the research happening in his community. But, as a mayor and resident of Tuktoyaktuk, he feels an urgency to pick a solution to protect the hamlet’s infrastructure and put it in place as soon as possible. Elias thinks it’s time for a solution to be selected—namely, concrete bulkheads like the ones placed on Tuk’s shoreline in the '70s. Ultimately, the solution for Tuk might be to move back from the current shoreline entirely. In the meantime, some residents' homes teeter at the edge of the ocean, and the town cemetery on the “point” extending into the Beaufort Sea is in danger every summer of disappearing into the water.

“We’ve had research done for 30 to 40 years in Tuk with the shoreline. It’s just continuing—research, research, research. You know we’ve been studied to death. We’ve had ministers, premiers, everybody come to Tuk, look at the shorelines, watch the water splashing on these houses right on the edge of the bank. At the end of the day, we’re still the ones that have to go do the groundwork.”

A photograph of a landscape from the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories

The community response to climate change shifting shorelines—even the prospect of moving an entire village from its namesake, a reindeer-resembling point protruding into the Arctic Ocean—isn’t panic or generalized climate anxiety. It’s a willingness to adapt, a desire to learn as much as possible and adjust to the new patterns of Arctic life, however dramatically different they may be.

“One thing I was told is that when things get tough, you get tougher,” said Elias.



Photography courtesy of the author. Artwork by Rick Silva for Silica Magazine.

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