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Cover Story

Measuring Waves and Permafrost to Better Understand Erosion on Alaska’s Arctic Coast



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Two groups of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists traveled to Barter Island off Alaska’s northeast coast in July and September of 2018. They installed video cameras overlooking the island’s outer shore and measured properties of the frozen soil, called permafrost, that strengthens the coastal bluffs. Their work is part of a USGS project to better understand erosion along the U.S. Arctic coast—erosion that threatens Native Alaskan villages, sensitive ecosystems, energy- and defense-related infrastructure, and large tracts of Native Alaskan, State, and Federally managed land.

Photo of an eroding permafrost bluff in Alaska showing undercuts to the bluff
Above: Face of eroding permafrost bluff on the north coast of Barter Island, Alaska. Permafrost is ice-rich soil that remains frozen throughout the year. Photo credit:  Shawn Harrison, USGS, in July 2018. [larger version]

Video station records coastal events

In July, the team installed thermistors to measure permafrost temperatures and a video system to record images of the beach and the breaking waves. Oceanographer Shawn Harrison of the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center (PCMSC) designed the solar-powered monitoring system. It uses video cameras attached to a small computer to record and quantify processes such as wave run-up, development of rip channels, bluff erosion, and movement of sandbars and ice floes. The video images can even be used to map the shape of the seabed beneath nearshore waters. All these factors can be measured by traditional methods, but the video system—modeled after the “Argus station” developed at Oregon State University—has the advantage of collecting data almost continuously over long periods and in conditions, like storms, that make traditional data gathering difficult or dangerous.

Harrison installed the video system on a Barter Island bluff with the help of technician Cordell Johnson and project chief and research oceanographer Li Erikson. Atop a tall pole they placed two cameras, one facing north over the Arctic Ocean and one facing east along the shore. Below the cameras they buried a small seismometer to record vibrations caused by breaking waves. They put two wave gauges attached to small buoys immediately offshore. One of their goals was to combine the data from these instruments to test the possibility of remotely estimating wave heights—an important factor in coastal erosion—without maintaining wave gauges in the ocean.

Photo of a researcher standing in front of a tall pole attached to 2 solar panels
Above: USGS oceanographer Shawn Harrison stands in front of the video-camera installation atop a coastal bluff on Barter Island in northern Alaska. Solar panels (on left) provide power for the two cameras (top of pole) and a small computer (in housing near bottom of pole). Photo credit: Cordell Johnson, USGS, in July 2018. [larger version]

In September 2018, Harrison and Johnson returned to Barter Island with oceanographer Ferdinand Oberle and PCMSC Director Guy Gelfenbaum. By the time they arrived, the wave-gauge buoys had disappeared, one of them dragged away by an ice floe. Local residents and colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are keeping an eye out for the gauges, which could wash ashore and yield valuable data.

Photo of a distant small boat with people in life vests Photo of the sea from the bluff, with a red arrow showing the position of the lost gauge in the tide
Above: On July 7, 2018, USGS personnel installed a wave gauge on the seafloor to measure currents and water pressure. Water pressure is used to calculate wave height. Image from north-facing video camera. [larger version]

  Above: Less than a day after installation, the buoy attached to the wave gauge was dragged away by an ice floe (red arrow). Image from east-facing video camera. [larger version]

During the September fieldwork, the crew downloaded data from the thermistors, seismometer, and video cameras; made repairs; and strengthened the structure supporting the video cameras. They also repaired and fortified the mounts for four “game cams,” sturdy cameras that take photographs of the bluffs and shoreline at regular intervals. Although these cameras provide only images—not the rich datasets amassed by the video monitoring system—they have proven useful over the years for recording the presence or absence of shore ice (which tends to protect the coast), slumps along bluff faces, and large waves that undercut the bluffs. (For example, view a time-lapse sequence of photos taken during summer 2014.) One of the game cams looks toward the video system, which helps the scientists keep an eye on it remotely from their Santa Cruz, California, offices.

The video cameras captured the motion of waves and ice floes during numerous autumn storms, until frigid temperatures in early October made the battery too weak to power the system. Collaborator Will Wiese (a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) put the battery and solar panels into storage in late November, as daylong darkness set in. The cameras are still on the mast, and the USGS team hopes to re-activate them in time to capture ice breakup in the spring. The rugged game cams were also left in place.

Photo of a researcher adjusting a camera on a mount on the edge of the bluff
Above: Cordell Johnson adjusts a game cam. Photo credit: Shawn Harrison, USGS. [larger version]

Distribution of permafrost within the bluffs

Another task for the team in September was mapping the permafrost in the coastal bluffs. Led by oceanographer Oberle, the scientists collected an unprecedented number of electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) profiles—spanning the entire length (about a mile and a quarter) of the Barter Island bluffs. ERT images provide a cross-sectional view of the ground’s electrical resistivity—how resistant it is to the flow of electricity. Electrons move easily through water in the soil, but not through ice, which is a poor conductor. Because of ice’s high electrical resistivity, ERT profiles give scientists a detailed picture of ice-rich permafrost within the bluffs.

Photo of researchers laying cable in a gully with rough terrain Photo of a researcher hammering a metal stake about a foot into the ground
Above: The September collection of 22 electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) transects was the largest to date on Barter Island. It entailed walking back and forth for miles over rough terrain and carrying nearly 420 pounds of equipment from site to site. Here the scientists lay an ERT cable across a gully that has rapidly expanded over the past 2 years. Photo credit: Shawn Harrison, USGS. [larger version]

  Above: Ferdinand Oberle hammers a metal stake about a foot into the ground to anchor the ERT cable and provide a conductive connection between the cable and the subsurface. The scientists installed and removed stakes more than 1,200 times to collect ERT profiles. Photo credit: Shawn Harrison, USGS. [larger version]

Project scientists have collected ERT data from Barter Island bluffs every September since 2014 to monitor changes in the permafrost. This year’s collection spans a longer stretch of bluffs than ever before. Geophysicist and former USGS contractor Jason Greenwood (now with Advanced Geosciences, Inc.) helped Oberle process the data into one continuous profile.

Graphic image of an ERT profile from the study area
Above: A typical 110-meter (360-foot)-long ERT profile, measured from 56 electrodes connected to the subsurface by metal stakes. Black dots along top of profile show electrode locations. Core samples revealed that the red areas correspond to ice wedges largely void of sediment. Image courtesy of Ferdinand Oberle, USGS. [larger version]

Oberle wants to measure how much frozen water is locked up in Barter Island’s coastal bluffs and where the ice is concentrated. The melting of this ice, especially large pockets of nearly pure ice, can potentially cause severe erosion. It could also explain the recent opening of crevasses, or “sinkholes” as locals refer to them, that pose a falling hazard. Oberle reported that these crevasses—some as deep as 26 feet—are a new feature on Barter Island since he began working there in 2016.

Photo of a deep crevass in the study area
Above: Example of crevasses that have appeared recently on Barter Island. At a community meeting in September, Ferdinand Oberle discussed these features with Barter Island residents, who call them “sinkholes.” Photo credit: Ferdinand Oberle, USGS. [larger version]

Sharing knowledge about Barter Island

The USGS scientists hosted community outreach events in July and September to present results from earlier studies and to hold an open-floor discussion of their ongoing research. These events provided an opportunity to exchange knowledge and perceptions of the many coastal processes occurring along the shores of Barter Island. Local government officials, residents, and visitors attended. The USGS scientists particularly appreciated the information, insights, and concerns about the changing coastline offered by long-time community members. 

Photo of people watching a presenter at a community meeting on Barter Island
Above: Research oceanographer Li Erikson explains USGS studies at a community meeting in July on Barter Island. Photo credit: Shawn Harrison, USGS. [larger version]

On the way home from Barter Island, Gelfenbaum gave a talk to the National Research Council’s Ocean Studies Board, which was meeting in Fairbanks to discuss Arctic infrastructure issues. Gelfenbaum presented background information on Arctic coastal geology, recent and historical shoreline-change data, and findings from USGS studies of Arctic coastal processes.

Photo of a polar bear track in wet sand next to a man's hand
Above: Polar bear track on the beach near the field area. The researchers kept a firearm ready in case of a polar bear attack. They saw bears from a distance and tracks like this one but had no close encounters. Photo credit:  Shawn Harrison, USGS, in September 2018. [larger version]

View additional photographs of the July and September fieldwork.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Eyes on the Coast—Video Cameras Help Forecast Coastal Change
Aug. - Oct. 2017
An Inside Look at Eroding Coastal Bluffs on Alaska’s North Slope
Dec. 2015 - Jan. 2016
Northern Alaska Coastal Erosion Threatens Habitat and Infrastructure
July – Sept. 2015
Erosion Doubles Along Part of Alaska's Arctic Coast—Cultural and Historical Sites Lost
May 2009

Related Websites
Peeking into Permafrost (3:44-minute video)
USGS
Climate impacts to Arctic coasts
USGS
Using Video Imagery to Study Coastal Change— Barter Island, Alaska
USGS
Time-lapse Photography of Barter Island in Alaska
USGS
Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences 2015
Ocean Studies Board

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in this issue:

Cover Story Understanding Erosion on Alaska’s Arctic Coast

News Brief
News Briefs

Research
Added Funding Aids Recovery from 2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires

Field Work
Mapping the Stamp Sands of Lake Superior

Recent Fieldwork

Outreach
Enhancing Science Education and Literacy Partnerships in Cape Cod

Staff amd Center News
Coastal Engineering Contractor Assists Flood Modeling in the Northwest

Publications
Dec. 2018 - Jan. 2019 Publications

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