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Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice

By Olga Gertcyk
30 September 2016

Across the Russian polar regions, these eye-catching pictures show how thawing soil leads to territories being washed away.

Building of a radio-station, Morzhovets Island in the White Sea. Picture: Alexander Oboimov

The evidence is graphic and startling. 

The Siberian Times teamed up with some of Russia's leading Arctic experts to highlight the changes underway as warmer air and sea temperatures change the face of the extreme north.

In the seas off the long polar coastline of Siberia, thawing permafrost on some of the world's most remote islands, as well as on the mainland shores, is being overrun at a dramatic rate - retreating as much as dozens of metres a year. 

In the coming decades and centuries, at this rate, a number of islands will vanish altogether, say scientists. 

Map

In the seas off the long polar coastline of Siberia, thawing permafrost on some of the world's most remote islands, as well as on the mainland shores, is being overrun at a dramatic rate. Picture: The Siberian Times

Among the examples from thousands of kilometres across the Russian Arctic:

* a disused meteorological station on Vize (Wiese) Island is falling into the Kara Sea because the coastline has retreated by 74 metres in seven years: an earlier picture, in snow, shows the a building on the edge of the cliff, but in latest images, it has collapsed down the cliff;

* the tundra cliffs of the New Siberian Islands are seen collapsing into Arctic Waters amid predictions that this entire archipelago, with a land mass larger than Albania or Haiti, could be washed away if the process accelerates. One picture highlights a navigation warning sign toppling down a cliff; 

* recent pictures from August 2016 from Viktor Nikiforov, coordinator of the sea animals programme of the Marine Mammal Council, show a scientific outpost on atoll-shaped Uyedineniya - or Solitude - Island in the Kara Sea in dire jeopardy of collapse as it is ravaged by encroaching waters;

* a meteorological station on the Yamal peninsula was built some 300 metres from the sea in 1952: now it is perilously close, some 40 metres, from the relentless retreat of the cliffs;

* a lighthouse on the Abramovsky shoreline lurches ominously as once-solid permafrost crumbles beneath it;

* coastal erosion speeded by climate change is eating away at Morzhovets island in the White Sea (pictured above), leaving its meteorological station on the brink.

Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 
New Siberian Islands, North of the East Siberian coast betwen the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea north of Sakha Republic. Pictures: Alexander Oboimov


Collapsing shores

Aleksander Oboimov, a member of Russian Geographical Society, said starkly: 'The Yamal [shore] is basically collapsing, by quite a few kilometres every year. Changes are the most evident in Yakutia (Sakha Republic), the New Siberian (Novosibirsk) Islands, Morzhovets island and the Abramovsky bereg (shore).

'Of course, global warming and melting ice play a huge role in that. These islands are mainly alluvial and with melting ice, the soil is vanishing too. 

'There are already a few islands in the New Siberian archipelago that no longer exist, such as Vasiliyevsky.'

These vanished in the 19th or 20th century, showing a long-term process is underway here, something more than a very recent global warming phenomenon, but the fear is that it is now significantly speeding up.

To many, the warming Arctic is no bad thing: Russia is actively seeking to develop the Northern Sea Route between Asia and Europe, which is possible now because of a  longer ice-free season in the summer months. The exploitation of gas fields - and various mineral riches - beneath the Arctic is also arguably made easier.

Yet there are enormous environmental implications, too, including the huge release of greenhouses gases in the thawing tundra, and the gargantuan impact on all kinds of wildlife. 

Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 
Lighthouse at the Abramovsky shore, the White sea, and Great (Bolshoy) Lyakhovsky Island, the largest in the group of islands belonging to the New Siberian Archipelago between the Laptev Sea and The New Siberian Sea. Pictures: Alexander Oboimov


Konstantin Zaytsev, vice president of Polar Association, who has studied the retreat of the New Siberian Islands, said: 'Erosion is happening because the soil and permafrost are layered there. Thawing of the permafrost causes landslides, the soil starts to sag gradually and it all collapses.

'These rocks drop to the sea, they are washed out. Gradually we are losing land, the territory of the island is decreasing.' 

Oboimov, has highlighted the problems on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky, or Great Lyakhovsky, the largest of the Lyakhovsky islands belonging to the New Siberian archipelago, between the Laptev and East Siberian seas.  

'Solar radiation, currents, waves, rain and wind are actively destroying ice shores,' he said. 'The speed of the disappearing shore is up to over 30 metres a year, and five metres a year on average.' 

The way he describes it, the island has a doomsday feeling to it, as if it has been hit by a natural catastrophe. 

'It is getting smaller each year. There are vanishing shores, with cracks appearing that you can't jump over. Rocks dozens of metres in diameter lie at the foot of cliffs. 

'The way it looks makes you think of a catastrophic natural phenomena - earthquakes, perhaps. It is hard to believe that it was all caused by gradual silent thawing of ice caused by solar heat.'

Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 
Vise (Wiese) Island. Pictures: Alexander Oboimov, Ivan Mizin/WWF Russia


Yet it is also plainly a process that has been underway over a much longer period. For example, in 1815 two islands were discovered in the Laptev Sea, named Vasiliyevsky and Semyonovsky, both formed of loess soil - undersoil ice, covered by silt and tundra. 

In 1823, a lieutenant who was doing a shoreline survey described Vasiliyevsky as 7.4 kilometres long and a quarter of a kilometre wide. The Northern Hydrographic Expedition in 1912 measured Vasiliyevsky island and discovered that it was only 4.6 km long. 

By 1936, hydrographers couldn't find the island: the sea was reported to have 'eaten it'.

Many experts see the New Siberian Islands as especially vulnerable, yet they are not alone. 

An aerial picture shows a similar process at work far to the west at lake-pocked Morzhovets, where the former coastline is visible in the blue-tinged sea.

Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 
Morzhovets Island, with the former coastline still visible underwater. Picture: Alexander Oboimov


Doomed islands 

Oboimov said: 'The first lighthouse was built back in 1841, at the north-western end of the island, 576 metres from the edge of the shore cliff. By 1857, the distance between the lighthouse and and the cliff decreased to 202 metres, and by 1865 to 65 metres. 

'Construction work to build the second lighthouse started in 1869, this time 790 metres away from the shore. In 1882 the distance between the lighthouse and the shore dropped to 277 metres, which means the north-western part of the island was vanishing at 43 metres per year over the previous 12 years.'

Hydrographers predict this island, like others, is doomed in the coming centuries yet the trend shows that the dramatic erosion is not new. 

An old map - pictured here - dating from 1890 depicts small Arctic islands in the Laptev Sea that completely disappeared during the 20th century.

Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 
Vanished islands marked on the map, and coastline of Vize island. Pictures: Alexander Oboimov


The lonely Vize island - also known as Wiese island - shows credible evidence of a significant speeding of this process. Glaciologist Dr Alexander Aleinikov compared the coastline here between 2009 and this year.

'The shores of the Vize Island were collapsing earlier too,' he said. 'It is a natural process; however, if back in the 1950s polar experts reported (a retreat of) about 1.5 metres per year, according to satellite images taken from 2009 to 2016, the shore has stepped back by 74 metres at this place.

'The speed has increased significantly.' 

Oksana Lipka, coordinator of WWF's climate and energy programme, said: 'It was earlier believed that the fastest pace of shore erosion in Russia - and the world - was in the New Siberian Islands that 'step back' by 5-to-15 metres a year, sometimes by 20 metres after a strong storm. 

'It is likely that the pace of shore erosion is even higher (on Vize).'

It was urgent to continue monitoring, she said. 

In the pictures from Vize, the rapid changes leading to this house being on the cliff edge are seen as being caused by a marked speeding of erosion of the permafrost shore by waves. Previously, the sea was frozen for a much longer period during the year, so the waves had limited power in battering the coast. 

The melting of the sea ice means the coastal permafrost, weakened by warmer temperatures, faces more forceful waves in a double whammy. 

The energy of wave impact directly depends on number of summer days when there is so-called open water around the island - without ice. 

Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 
Kotelny island, part of the Anzhu Islands subgroup of the New Siberian Islands, between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea. Picture: Maxim Avdeev 


Analysis of Landsat satellite images over recent years shows the open water period has increased because of global warming. For example, a satellite image taken on 15 July 2016 shows there is absolutely no ice in the water area around Vize island. 

The increase in temperature of the air and the sea's surface, along with the reduction of ice and extension of the time the water is 'open' and 'the results of climate change in northern longitudes', says WWF. 

'Remarkably, the temperature in the Arctic is rising twice as fast as anywhere on the planet.'

A problem for scientists in making comparisons is that much Arctic research halted with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is only now getting back to full scale.

A series of vivid pictures was supplied by Mikhail Grigoriev, deputy director of the Permafrost Studies Institute, Yakutsk, who has studied the impact of the changing climatic conditions on the East Siberian Sea. 

Already in 2009, there had been a loss of 10 square kilometres of coastline, he reported. The fastest retreating are icy sea shores. The speed of destruction of shores that contain ice is between five and seven times higher than areas with less ice. 

Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 
Marked are key areas of coastal erosion 1982-2009 observations in the Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea. Pictures: Mikhail Grigoryev


During recent years, a key monitored area showed a rapid increase of thermal abrasive shore destruction. The speed of their retreat grew by up to two times in several areas above the annual mean.

These changes are linked to increasing air temperature in the area and rising storm activity due to reduced area of pack ice in the Arctic. Dr Grigoriev has also warned that this year the depth of permafrost thaw in Yakutia - usually between 30 and 60 centimetres - has exceeded one metre. 

One study on the Bykovsky Peninsula, located north-east of the harbour town of Tiksi, in Sakha Republic, found that between 1951 and 2006 total coastal erosion ranged from 434 metres, while accretion ranged from 92 metres over the same period. 

So the net erosion in a relatively sheltered location was 342 metres. 

'Coastal erosion in the Arctic differs from its counterpart in temperate regions due to the short open-water season (3-4 months) and to the presence of ice in the marine and terrestrial environments (that is, permafrost and ground ice).

'Despite these restrictions, Arctic coastal erosion rates compare with temperate coastal erosion and lead to the release of vast quantities of terrestrial organic carbon and contaminants to the Arctic Ocean,'  stated this study. 

Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 
Uyedineniya - or Solitude - Island in the Kara Sea. Pictures: Viktor Nikiforov


Of the top ten sea areas with the greatest coastal erosion, six are in the Arctic waters above Siberia. 

'Four are located in the Laptev Sea sector, three in the US Beaufort Sea, two in the East Siberian Sea and one in the Canadian Beaufort Sea,' said Dr Irina Streletskaya, docent of the Faculty of Cryolitology and Glaciology, at Moscow State University. 

'One of the driving forces behind a potential increase in erosion is the lengthening of the open-water season, which is thought to have a much greater impact on the coasts than the increased fetch associated with disappearing sea ice.'

She added: 'Arctic coastlines are likely to undergo dramatic changes in a warming climate, affecting both biophysical and human systems, with countless impacts ranging from threats to infrastructure to changing biological environments affecting wildlife. 

'Erosion is responsible for substantial fluxes of carbon and probably contaminants to the marine environment, which in turn can potentially alter the near-shore carbon cycle and affect several trophic levels. 

'The dynamic nature of coastal erosion and its coupling with climate variables could thereby result in increasing fluxes of sediment from the coast.'

Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 


Vanishing Arctic: how warming climate leaves remote permafrost islands on the precipice 
Leaning 'Vankin' navigation signal (now collapsed), the East-Siberian Sea, and shores of Yamal peninsula around Marresalya polar station. Pictures: Mikhail Grigoriyev, Alexander Oboimov


Dr Ivan Mizin, senior expert at the WWF's Barents Sea office, said: 'Sea islands that are altering both because of human influence and climate change require careful attention of researchers.'

He warned: 'Vize Island needs protection first of all as a year-round habitat of Polar bears, Atlantic walrus, and Ivory gull. It is located on the border of two seas and joins the population of these rare species. 

'We need to understand if reduction of the size of the island will affect these species and to what extent. To do that, it is desirable to limit human impact to the already existing Polar meteorological station and obtain reserve status (for the island).'

With an expected large increase in commercial shipping using the Northern Sea Route between Asia and Europe - along the Russian coastline - he said it was important to 'preserve the most precious natural territories that will play an important role in maintaining biological diversity of the Kara sea during its commercial exploration'.

Comments (9)

Realestate agents are to blame
Allan Begg, Ullabloodydulla Australia
01/03/2017 10:26
0
0
A superb article! The implications are obvious . . . . . how can anyone deny the empirical evidence ... shall we also question Newton's Law on gravity.


I guess Galiao had the same problem from the Flat Earth idiots of the time !!





Regratably, the President elect over here, is not looking too promising, to put it mildly.





We can only hope that good overcomes the uninformed...
David Rasmussen, Napa, USA
03/12/2016 08:05
3
0
A load of alarmist hooey! The planet has been intermittently warming up and cooling down for aeons, long before industrialisation added any effect. Meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions, sun spots, earthquakes and tsunamis regularly inflict more damage than anything man-made. Besides, large parts of the world, such as the remote perishing regions of Russia and Canada, will benefit from having higher average temps and longer growing seasons. We all need a little more sunshine in our lives. That said, political nutters like Trump and his ilk may hasten the day when we are all consumed by a nuclear holocaust.
John Alexander, Brisbane, Australia.
08/11/2016 06:19
1
3
I couldn't sleep for two days after reading this article, Wow!

I live at a much lower latitude, and every couple of days, there is a lot of methane in my local sky. The rains scarcely happen in the daylight hours, the refraction of the sunlight through the layer of methane, is like a magnifying glass effect. After about the noon hour, any clouds in the sky, even if the sky is full of dark and scary looking storm clouds. Within a matter of minutes, 10 maybe twenty minutes, the entire sky is cloud free. Sometimes it is six weeks, no rain at all. And then there is the clouds from the Arctic, all that melt, all them clouds, the ones that are passing over your heads right now, the Ferrel Cell, transports the moisture to lower latitudes by way of the rotation of the planet. The horse latitudes, are something of the "drop" zone. From the North, in the "horse latitudes", the wind descends from upward to down, or has so much moisture, it has just got to let go. To the South of the "horse latitudes", is The Hadley Cell. The wind pattern of the Hadley Cell, from the Equator to about 30 degrees North. Brings high altitude heat from the tropical regions in, at high altitude. Just as the Arctic moisture arrives. It gets mechanical to explain the winds of the Ferrel Cell.
Warm air, moves northward at the surface level, getting squeezed closer to the surface, forming a wedge, to lift the atmosphere above, the rotation of the planet causes this to happen.
Meanwhile, from the North, or, the Return Flow of the Ferrel Cell. The clouds in the Arctic, are formed by the heat, in many different ways. Evaporation, or, lets just say a ferocious storm is raging in Siberia. Raining really strong, I am talking, tigers and goats! It is a ferocious, yet badly groomed afternoon. Once that entire storm flows south, it gets lifted up, higher, and higher as it is elevated by the winds from below, It rides the upper levels of the flow, and when the ride ends, that storm, with all its goats lions and moisture, comes to the "horse latitudes", This is all the way around the Planet, by the way.
Paris, Japan, Bosnia, Germany, Italy, Greece, Texas, 3 years ago, we >(as in, the people that live in the horse latitudes), used to get 2 months of rain in an afternoon, (increasing regularly). Now, the rain is coming down at 8 inches per hour (20.3 cm/hour) after about 5 hours, you begin to notice the moisture, and people screaming. In varying years the "rain" way down here on the planet, so far away, is getting the full effect of the melt you are experiencing. We are all in this, (Planet Earth) together.
The methane, riding along for the ride, seeking equilibrium at the high resonant altitude, where every molecule of methane can join every other molecule of methane, and eventually, and unfortunately, encircle the entire planet.
As soon as any methane gets into the atmosphere, it begins to seek its place in the environment, The move is on. The methane rises to a very high tropospheric altitude in the lower latitude atmosphere, much near the Equator.
The continued warming, is going to continue. When the methane gets flowing, the lower latitudes will get drought stricken and scorched. You people in the Arctic, will probably live on like the dinosaurs did in that area, after every other dinosaur was wiped out., everywhere else on the planet, for another two million years.
Take lots of pictures, especially of tanned women. Good Luck, it's been good to know ya.
, in three days, no rain for months otherwise.
the evaporation the melt, the clouds, and the methane, are in the return flow from the Arctic region, at upper altitude,
The warming is getting more established, and, appears to be increasing at a sustained intensity.
bernie, 30 degrees North, 90 degrees West
20/10/2016 11:39
4
1
According to the article, islands in the New Siberian archipielago vanished during the 19th and 20th centuries "...showing a long-term process...".

So, nothing new.
Enrique, Spain
12/10/2016 23:56
3
7
Absolutely stunning photographs, Olga. Thank you for these. The pace and scope of Arctic warming is mind blowing, and we are likely witnessing runaway warming now, fuelled by the massive methane releases in the Arctic from the permafrost melting as you have shown, particularly on the Siberian coast Adding to this are undersea arctic methane releases from clathrates, and other global methane releases from deforestation, agriculture, and fracking. This is a global climate emergency, and we need to do EVERYTHING we can, as global citizens and governments, to slow it down as much as possible. This needs to include, as Paul Beckwith has advocated, geo-engineering to reduce warming, and sequestration to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, obviously in addition to banning the burning of fossil fuels globally. Otherwise humanitiy's future prospects on spaceship earth are grim indeed. Vote for the climate!! Everything else is rearranging the deck chairs in the Titanic.
Doug Prest, Kenilworth, Canada
12/10/2016 21:02
8
2
The sites ScienceAndPublicPolicy.org and WattsUpWithThat.com are skeptical of the global warming theory, overall. I have read that satellite data shows that the world's temperature has dropped very slightly over the last 18 years, despite a large increase in carbon dioxide, which skeptics claim follows a warming period, rather than preceding or causing it. I've also read that some Russian scientists, and now German ones too, are predicting a mini ice-age for two or three decades. Could the warming in the Arctic be caused by underwater releases of hot gasses or lava?
Russell, Austin, Texas USA
04/10/2016 10:30
3
14
Why should I care who wins the forthcoming US election when the natural world -- starting with the Arctic -- is rapidly vanishing, along with its wildlife?
Lawrence Millman, Cambridge, MA, USA
04/10/2016 05:53
6
7
wow...we all need to wake up!
Kevin , US
01/10/2016 11:37
19
2
1

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