Drones changing how scientists monitor Arctic climate change

Geological Survey scientists say western Arctic erosion rapidly accelerating

STEVE DUCHARME

Roger Macleod, a member of the the Geological Survey of Canada research team using drones and 3-D imagery to track climate change induced coastal erosion in the western Arctic. (PHOTOS COURTESY THE GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA)
Roger Macleod, a member of the the Geological Survey of Canada research team using drones and 3-D imagery to track climate change induced coastal erosion in the western Arctic. (PHOTOS COURTESY THE GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA)
Evidence of widespread permafrost slumping and coastline erosion in the western Arctic's Mackenzie-Beaufort Delta region.
Evidence of widespread permafrost slumping and coastline erosion in the western Arctic’s Mackenzie-Beaufort Delta region.

Cliffs along the western Canadian Arctic coastline are eroding at an increasingly rapid pace, threatening to impact animals, plants and people in the area.

But a team of scientists from the Geological Survey of Canada has found a cheap and novel way to monitor the phenomenon: combining off-the-shelf drones with 3D imagery that tracks erosion year-to-year without breaking the bank.

“It’s magnitudes cheaper, maybe even ten times cheaper,” coastal geologist for the Geological Survey of Canada, Dustin Whalen, told Nunatsiaq News, Dec. 16, comparing his do-it-yourself tech to more expensive LIDAR imagery—or light detection and ranging, a remote sensing method shot from an airplane.

Whalen and his team recently tracked about 10 kilometres of coastline with a drone in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, in the Mackenzie–Beaufort Delta of the Northwest Territories.

Using a $1,500 drone you can purchase online from electronic stores, the scientists confirmed that erosion is accelerating at a rapid rate, even compared to data recorded 20 years ago.

That rate of coastal change has increased between 20 and 200 per cent since 2000, Whalen and his team note in a report on their work.

That’s especially true with cliffs larger than five metres in height which are more susceptible to climate change and warming temperatures that destabilize load-bearing permafrost.

“Eighty-five per cent of the coastline is eroding in the western Canadian Arctic. Of that, I think 65 per cent of the Arctic is cliffs over five metres and our data has shown that all cliffs over five metres are accelerating [in that area],” Whalen said.

Many of the cliffs in the region being studied by the Geological Survey of Canada hang between 15 and 18 metres over the coastline.

“Some of these blocks coming off are the size of a three-storey home and they’re falling off every season.”

 

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