Explore Coastal Change in Alaska

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A new geonarrative shows how USGS Coastal Change Hazards research is directly addressing the ability to understand, measure and project coastal change in permafrost regions.

This article is part of the Sound Waves Special Issue on Coastal Change Hazards.

U.S. Geological Survey scientist walks on  a coastal bluff in Alaska.

USGS scientist Alex Snyder collects data atop the eroding permafrost bluff at Barter Island near the village of Kaktovik, Alaska. Permafrost-dominated coasts of Alaska are changing rapidly as the result of coastal transgression and storm-surge flooding which can result in the loss of cultural sites and damage to infrastructure. Credit: Bruce Richmond, USGS, September 2016 (Public domain)

Explore the “Coastal Change in Alaska” geonarrative!

The presence of permafrost and seasonal ice makes coastal processes on Alaska's north coast unique compared to temperate coasts. In this region, the ground and sea have historically been frozen for much of the year, making coastlines strong and resistant to erosion. However, when the frozen ground (or permafrost) thaws, the coast can change quickly. Waves, warm water, and the sun all play a role in coastal change on Alaska's north coast. Some of the highest rates of shoreline retreat in the world (22 meters, or 72 feet, per year) have been measured along Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coast. As the amount and number of days when sea ice is present declines, the coast is left exposed and vulnerable to more frequent and higher waves and water levels that lead to increasing rates of coastal erosion and flooding.

USGS scientists are working to understand how coasts in Alaska have changed in the past and how they will change in the future. As Arctic temperatures increase, the extent and duration of sea ice decreases, and permafrost continues to thaw, the potential for coastal retreat in Alaska could keep increasing and even accelerate. USGS coastal change research can provide critical information for local communities, wildlife management agencies, and industries in Alaska so they can plan for future changes.

Cartoon shows the sun in the sky radiating down onto a coastal bluff with waves lapping up the bluff.

Graphic showing how solar energy thaws permafrost and waves physically erode permafrost. Credit: USGS (Public domain)

Coastal change is inevitable, but coastal management decisions that are guided by USGS CCH science and tools can help our society reduce risk and losses. Through the focused efforts on Coastal Change Hazards and growing connections to other areas of USGS expertise and capabilities, we are fulfilling the vision of a Nation that prospers by using scientific knowledge to prepare for, mitigate, and respond to threats posed by our dynamic coasts.

The new geonarrative joins a series of educational, interactive webpages (geonarratives) that take you on a journey across our Nation’s coastlines to learn about coastal change in various environments, become familiar with the hazards posed by these changes and understand how USGS science and tools can help coastal communities mitigate these risks and prepare for future change.

In these geonarratives, explore how barrier islands and shorelines move over time or how we forecast coastal change, learn how coral reefs make a difference in coastal protection, interact with our tools for visualizing coastal storm impacts on the California coast, or examine how permafrost and seasonal ice makes coastal change in Alaska unique.

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