Rapid retreat of permafrost coastline observed with aerial drone photogrammetry

Andrew Cunliffe*, George Tanski, Boris Radosavljevic, William Palmer, Torsten Sachs, Hugues Lantuit, Jeffrey Kerby, Isla Myers-Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Permafrost landscapes are changing around the Arctic in response to climate warming, with coastal erosion being one of the most prominent and hazardous features. Using drone platforms, satellite images, and historic aerial photographs, we observed the rapid retreat of a permafrost coastline on Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, in the Canadian Beaufort Sea. This coastline is adjacent to a gravel spit accommodating several culturally significant sites and is the logistical base for the Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island Territorial Park operations. In this study we sought to (i) assess short-term coastal erosion dynamics over fine temporal resolution, (ii) evaluate short-term shoreline change in the context of long-term observations, and (iii) demonstrate the potential of low-cost lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to inform coastline studies and management decisions. We resurveyed a 500m permafrost coastal reach at high temporal frequency (seven surveys over 40 d in 2017). Intra-seasonal shoreline changes were related to meteorological and oceanographic variables to understand controls on intra-seasonal erosion patterns. To put our short-term observations into historical context, we combined our analysis of shoreline positions in 2016 and 2017 with historical observations from 1952, 1970, 2000, and 2011. In just the summer of 2017, we observed coastal retreat of 14.5 m, more than 6 times faster than the long-term average rate of 2:20:1ma1 (1952-2017). Coastline retreat rates exceeded 1:00:1md1 over a single 4 d period. Over 40 d, we estimated removal of ca. 0.96m3 m1 d1. These findings highlight the episodic nature of shoreline change and the important role of storm events, which are poorly understood along permafrost coastlines. We found drone surveys combined with image-based modelling yield fine spatial resolution and accurately geolocated observations that are highly suitable to observe intra-seasonal erosion dynamics in rapidly changing Arctic landscapes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1513-1528
Number of pages16
JournalThe Cryosphere
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 27 May 2019


Financial support. This research has been supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (grant no. NE/M016323/1), the National Geographic Society (grant no. CP-061R-17), the Helmholtz Young Investigators Group “COPER” (grant no. VH NG 801), the Horizon 2020 (grant Nunataryuk (773421)), and the NERC Geophysical Equipment Facility (grant nos. GEF:1063 and GEF:1069).

FundersFunder number
Environment Research CouncilNE/M016323/1
NERC Geophysical Equipment Facility
National Geographic SocietyCP-061R-17, VH NG 801
Horizon 2020 Framework Programme
Horizon 2020773421


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