From the field: Exploring coastal change in the Arctic

By François Malenfant

I came to Inuvik, NWT (fig.1) in the middle of May to work as a Coastal Geoscience Field Assistant with Natural Resources Canada, and so far, it has been a remarkable experience. Whether it’s the landscape, the community, the culture, the wildlife, the weather, or the constant sunlight at this time of year, I’m always reminded of how lucky I am to be here. I’m not sure how someone can grow up four thousand kilometers away from a place, yet feel so attached to it.


Fig.1) Locator map for Pelly Island, which is situated on the edge of the Mackenzie Delta, NWT.

As a graduate student from Saint Mary’s University, I have the exciting opportunity to work with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) on climate change and Arctic coastal research. My thesis work involves an examination of nearshore dynamics and coastal erosion on Pelly Island (Fig.1), which is one of the fastest eroding islands in the world. Pelly Island is a small, remote piece of land approximately 100 km from the nearest community which is Tuktoyaktuk (Fig.1). As part of my studies, I have embarked on a 3.5 month expedition to the Canadian northwestern Arctic under the supervision of NRCan researcher Dustin Whalen, who has been studying coastal and climate driven changes in the Arctic for 14 years. I’m just getting started, but I’m already gaining hands-on experience programming seabed instruments (Fig.2), analyzing permafrost core samples taken this past winter (Fig.3), posting photos and videos on a local community social media page (Mackenzie – Beaufort Break-Up) which monitors ice break up in the Mackenzie Delta (Fig.4), and making connections with the local people most affected by the changes in the environment here (Fig.5).

In addition to collecting and analyzing data for climate change research, my work this summer includes helping other science teams in field expeditions in remote areas across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. I will spend almost six weeks living and working in an isolated field camp environment, where I will be collecting data to document coastal landscape change. During this time, I will be deploying seabed instruments, setting up a weather station, flying drones and exploring and observing this amazing landscape firsthand.

Growing up in rural New Brunswick, I spent much of my time playing in nature. This is where my passion for the outdoors began, and I believe it was the catalyst for my desire to study landscapes. During my undergraduate studies in geoscience, I gained some experience studying permafrost landscapes and their unique features but there’s nothing like seeing them in person. During my flight to Inuvik from Edmonton, I was lucky enough to have clear skies during the flight. This allowed me to identify some unique permafrost features such as thermokarst lakes (Fig.6).

Once I arrived in Inuvik, one of the first things that puzzled me was seeing the low-lying metal structures that snake their way all around town (Fig.7). I was informed by locals that these metal structures are called utilidors (Fig.7) and they are used to provide above ground plumbing in permafrost landscapes. The locals also say the best way to travel and explore the region is either by snowmobile in the winter, or by boat in the summer. The abundance of braided rivers in the Mackenzie Delta act as highways for boat travel during the summer, and frozen highways for snowmobile travel during the winter. This is part of the reason why monitoring ice breakup in the region is so important, as during the ice breakup, it is not possible to travel by snowmobile and it can be dangerous by boat.

This expedition is proving to be a life-changing experience, and I look forward to providing more updates as the field season unfolds. For real-time updates on my adventures, follow me on Instagram: @geofrank247

Fig. 2

Fig. 2)  The yellow casing and song board with all the D cell batteries attached to it is one of five hydrophones which I’ve programmed. The white cylinder is one of six instrument loggers which I’ve programmed, in this case we have a Conductivity Temperature Depth (CTD) logger.

Fig. 3

Fig.3 Permafrost core samples taken from Tuktoyaktuk Island required quick analysis to avoid thawing while out of the freezer.

Fig. 4

Fig.4)  I took daily photos of this exact area of the East Channel and posted them to a community social media page (Mackenzie – Beaufort Break-Up) to monitor the ice breakup.

Fig. 5

Fig.5) I was fortunate to have the opportunity to share my knowledge of climate change and coastal erosion with East Three Secondary school students. The amount of obvious climate change in the region, and the associated research, has made an impact on the younger generation. They have a lot of existing knowledge, understanding and first-hand experience on the subject.

Fig. 6

Fig.6) A mosaic of thermokarst lakes seen from the airplane on my way to Inuvik.

Fig. 7

Fig.7) The utilidoor system in Inuvik  provides above ground plumbing in this permafrost landscape.

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