When Spice and I camped overnight in Tuktoyaktuk in June 2019, the hamlet appeared battered by nature and in peril. Then while writing our earlier post Tuk, It’s Complicated–Politics:Why was this $300-million road built it became apparent that the north is warming more rapidly than elsewhere challenging the engineering design and the research that is continuing to protect the permafrost from the Inuvik–Tuktoyaktuk Highway. And that Tuk itself is an endangered community—its only hope is to either move six kilometres to higher ground, something they have reluctantly started—or to significantly increase shoreline protection.
Since 2001, sixteen homes from the Point (elevation < four metres) have been destroyed by waves or moved to Reindeer Point (elevation > ten metres). No new plots are being granted at the Cemetery (elevation six metres). Despite the advice of the Inuvialuit who warned the site was prone to high water the airport at Tuk was built in the 1950s to support the Distant Early Warning Radar Station. Subsequently, the airport had to be raised to prevent flooding—to a four-metre elevation! Eventually it will need to be relocated, perhaps across the bay to the abandoned Imperial Oil Ltd. airstrip (elevation thirteen metres). Tuktoyaktuk Island protects the harbour from erosion on the seaward side of the hamlet but the island itself is being eroded at the rate of two metres per year and will be breached within fifteen years.
Why is this happening?
Increasing temperatures in the north are amplifying the destructive forces of nature.
The commitments laid out in Paris in 2015 to limit CO2 emissions have not been met nor will they come close to limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2050.
At COP26 there is a ratchet mechanism that requires countries to increase the size and scope of their nationally determined contributions to lower greenhouse-gas emissions to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Do you believe new commitments will be made and met?
Meanwhile, the average annual temperature in Canada from 1948 to 2016 increased 1.7 °C, about double the global rate. In Canada’s far north, it’s double that again–nearby at Inuvik the average annual temperature has increased 3.5°C since 1970.
“When we think about coastal erosion, we normally think of minor change. It’s change we can see in a lifetime or in a decade. But when you go to the Canadian Arctic, in particular the Beaufort Sea, we see changes we can see in a summer, in a month, or sometimes even in a day based on storm surges.” Dustin Whalen | Physical Scientist, Geological Survey of Canada | see video on Changing Coastlines in Canada’s Arctic .
With higher temperatures, ice is receding 13% per decade in the Beaufort Sea with longer periods of open water leaving the shoreline exposed to more frequent and higher waves.
Since the 1970s, open-water season has increased to 110 days from 95 days and will exceed 150 days by 2050. It may be beneficial for cruise ships and freight shipping as the Northwest Passage commercializes but it’s devastating for shorelines and Tuk residents.
Each year the community’s roads are flooded due to high water levels. Storms in 1944, 1993 and 2019 damaged infrastructure in the hamlet. More powerful and frequent waves are coming. Fast.
New research discussed in Climate Change May Cause Extreme Waves in Arctic projects the annual maximum wave height will be two-to-three-times higher than it is now along coastlines in areas of the Arctic, such as the Beaufort Sea. The new study suggests waves could be two meters higher than their current heights by the end of the century. In addition, extreme wave events that used to occur once every twenty years might increase to occur once every two-to-five years.
Compounding this, the land is sinking and the sea is rising at Tuktoyaktuk.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change high-emission RCP8.5 scenario projects global sea level to rise 74 cm over the next 80 years . Although this scenario is often disputed as being too extreme, it may be too conservative where tolerance to the risk of sea level rise is low, as is the case for Tuktoyaktuk. At the same time, the delta will subside 30 cm-60 cm, pushing the relative sea level rise to ~120 cm.
A fifth element is the challenge to quantify the melting and collapse of the underlying permafrost in the hamlet of Tuk.
Within two metres of the surface is permafrost containing more than 50% ice crystals. If the active layer above it is disturbed or eroded, the loss of insulation will lead to melting. Melting permafrost also releases large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times as damaging as CO2 but with a shorter life cycle!
Are There Solutions?
Acknowledging the challenges, in 2016 the hamlet council retained Dillon Consulting to engage the community to design a three-phased approach for redevelopment over a twenty-five-year period, rather than save what is in place.
The revised Community Plan and Zoning Bylaws was passed in 2017, setting the stage for a migration of the town of Tuk to Reindeer Point.
The National Disaster Mitigation Program funded the move of four homes, plus provided a taxi-van to shuttle the residents back to the institutions and services still in the town. The only reference I could find for this work was a presentation by Dillon after they received an award from the Alberta Professional Planners Institute.
But there was soon a change of heart that has led to programs to preserve what is there.
Because few Tuk residents want to relocate.
Plus there were logistical challenges of moving the community—roads, water and power infrastructure, the cemetery and the water reservoir.
Baird Engineering was retained to design defensive structures along the shoreline, including Tuktoyaktuk Island. The recommendation was presented to the community on Sept 13, 2021, for a “rock revetment” system and reported in this article: Cost to save Tuktoyaktuk from climate change: $42 million and rising | Eric Bowling | NNSL Media |September 22, 2021.
In the end, it may come down to available funding, as summarized in this article: Tuktoyaktuk teetering: Hamlet’s shoreline erosion a warning to rest of Canada’s North | Mathew McClearn | Globe & Mail | Aug 20, 2019
“History has said that long-term shore protection in Tuktoyaktuk is not working,” Mr. Whalen, a physical scientist with Natural Resources Canada who has worked in the community for a decade, observed. “So, in 20 years, are we just going to add this one to the list? Or is this the plan that the community has been waiting for?”
Whatever option the hamlet selects, the cost will greatly exceed local budgets. Tuk’s total revenue from all sources amounted to less than $2.4-million in 2017, and the territorial government lacks any sizable infrastructure funding.
“Anything we would have currently would be fairly small in size and scope,” said Eleanor Young, deputy minister of the territory’s Municipal and Community Affairs Department. But once the hamlet selects its preferred solution, Ms. Young said, her department would help it apply for federal funding.
Ottawa has several programs aimed at helping communities adapt to climate change, one of which paid for most of the Baird study. But how much is the federal government prepared to spend on what can only be regarded as temporary measures to protect this tiny Northern hamlet of roughly 1,000 souls?
How much indeed?
Spice added this from one of her favourite writers, Rebecca Solnit from her book A Paradise Built in Hell.
“To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.”
UPDATE, January 9, 2021: “The Great Siberian Thaw,” Joshua Yaffa, The New Yorker, January 9, 2021.
See Happening to Us a film trailer created by youth from Tukyoyaktuk for COP25 described in this article Happening to Us: Amplifying Youth Voices from the Arctic Maéva Gauthier Terralingua, July 30, 2020
Good discussion and images specific to Tuktoyaktuk in ‘Catastrophic’ increase in Arctic wave heights predicted due to melting sea ice The Narwhal, Julien Gignac, July 10, 2020
Part 1 of this Assessment has incredible interactive graphics: Coastal and Offshore Permafrost in a Changing Arctic GRID-Arendal, 2020. Executive Summary. In: Rapid Response Assessment of Coastal and Offshore Permafrost