Synthesis of Coastal Issues and Projects in the Western Arctic National Parklands

By Peter Neitlich, Tahzay Jones, and Jim Lawler, National Park Service and Trevor Haynes, Wildlife Conservation Society
seal on the coast
Arctic people depend on bearded seals and other ice seals as an important food resource.

NPS/Peter Neitlich


Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and Cape Krusenstern National Monument have approximately 994 miles (1,600 kilometers) of predominantly soft-sediment Arctic coastlines rich in biological resources. These shorelines include vast, shallow lagoons with fractal-patterned interiors, large estuaries, barrier islands, sandy capes, salt marshes, mudflats, brackish wetlands, and the world’s northernmost eelgrass beds. Like those of eastern North America before European contact, the northwest Arctic shorelines are wild, dynamic, productive, and extensive.

Aerial image of a lagoon
The vast and shallow lagoons, estuaries, and marshes are ecologically important and vulnerable to human disturbances such as oil spills.

NPS photo courtesy of Shorezone

With climate change progressing steadily in the Arctic, sea ice has retreated by an average of 1.3 percent per year (NSIDC 2015) since the 1950s. Through 2015, the September Arctic sea ice extent has decreased by 13.4 percent per decade, relative to the 1981-2010 average. The nine lowest September sea ice extents have occurred in the last nine years. In the summer months, the Arctic ice pack is now sufficiently far north to allow for passage of vessels by both the Northern Sea Route (above Siberia) and the Northwest Passage (through the Canadian Archipelago to Greenland). As a result, vessel traffic has increased dramatically through the Bering Strait (Marine Exchange of Alaska, pers. comm. 2014).

The Bering Strait is poised to become an important waterway for commercial traffic. Connecting the Bering Sea to the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Strait is the only connection from the Pacific Ocean into Arctic waters; all Pacific marine traffic to or from the Arctic Ocean must pass through here. The Northern Sea Route shipping lanes to Europe and North America from Asia are now in use by cargo ships and fuel tankers, and there is projected to be as much as a 500% increase in traffic by 2025 from 2015 transit estimates (Azzara et al. 2015). Arctic shipping transits through the Bering Strait are immediately adjacent to Bering Land Bridge and Cape Krusenstern. Arctic, large cruise ship tourism is also emerging as a new enterprise; a 1,100-passenger ship recently completed the trip through the Northwest Passage from Anchorage to New York.

Of course, with increasing vessel traffic comes the increased risk of marine incidents. Given the proximity of emerging shipping to these formerly remote conservation areas, the National Park Service (NPS) has embarked on an ambitious plan to prepare for the potential of oil spills by characterizing the biological and physical properties of these coastlines.
eroded coastal bank illustrating exposed yedoma permafrost
Erosion is accelerated by the lack of sea ice that normally protects the coast during strong storms as well as thawing of exposed permafrost and ice deposits.

NPS/Peter Neitlich

The marine waters off of the Arctic park coasts are shallow and highly productive, perched atop a barely inundated continental shelf. Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) feed on sea floor invertebrates. Four species of ice seals consume large quantities of fish, and polar bears (Ursus maritimus) move south seasonally to hunt them. Several species of whales migrate through these waters annually. An estimated 12 million seabirds nest or forage in the area each year and are joined by as many as 37 species of shorebirds that nest or stage for their annual migration. Numerous species of whitefish move in and out of the extensive and shallow lagoon systems. Chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) run in tremendous numbers into Kotzebue Sound and its major river systems, the Noatak and Kobuk drainages, and are joined by several other species of salmon and the iconic sheefish (Stenodus leucichthys).

Inupiat peoples have made their homes along these coastlines for hundreds of generations. Communities are heavily interconnected with marine and terrestrial mammals, and have a wealth of knowledge about the region, its ecosystems and wildlife. The health of the region’s marine and coastal ecosystems is inextricable from the health and welfare of the region’s communities. Marine mammals, especially the bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) and other ice seals, represent as much as 68 percent of Bering Strait community residents’ diets, with much of the remainder coming from terrestrial mammals (Arctic Council 2009). At oil spill response workshops sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Coast Guard, local communities have expressed concern that a spill that creates a catastrophic effect on marine mammals would have an equally catastrophic effect on residents and their traditional lifestyles (NOAA and UNH 2012).

The Arctic parks now need to be concerned about issues that once seemed remote. Climate change-induced warming of ocean water has prevented the formation of shore-fast ice until November or December. In the past, the ice froze along the immediate shoreline in October or early November and had protected the coast from strong fall storms. These storms now cause large surges (up to 12 feet) that cause large-scale coastal erosion averaging about 2.95 feet (0.9 meters) per year (Manley and Lestak 2012). The erosion is assisted by the thaw of permafrost and yedoma (relict Pleistocene ice deposits) on the immediate coast, which makes the soil more erodible. Recent surveys and reports from communities have shown significant loss of soft-sediment beaches (Shishmaref IRA, pers. comm. 2015). The outside world has also impinged upon Arctic coasts in the form of significant accumulation of marine debris including plastic garbage, derelict fishing gear, rope, tarps, foam, and plastic crates.

Arctic Monitoring

The importance of inventory and monitoring of the coastal resources in the Arctic was recognized early during the development of the NPS Arctic Network Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) Program’s monitoring plan (Lawler et al. 2009). Out of a starting list of dozens of potential indicators, six related to coastal resources were ultimately placed on the selected list of 28. They are: coastal erosion, lagoon communities and ecosystems, Yellow-billed Loons, sea ice, fish assemblages, and subsistence resources. Of these, NPS has made the most significant progress studying the former three areas.
two researchers in a small boat collecting data about a lagoon
Lagoon monitoring crew doing field work.

NPS/Tahzay Jones

Monitoring coastal erosion has produced a detailed rendering of erosion and accretion rates along the entire coastline of Bering Land Bridge and Cape Krusenstern based on comparisons of older and more recent aerial and satellite imagery. While the phenomenon of coastal erosion has long been recognized in low-lying regional communities like Shishmaref and Kivalina, the extent of erosion along the length of the park shores caught park researchers and resource managers by surprise.

Lagoon communities and ecosystems monitoring is being developed in recognition of the important habitats they provide for a diversity of bird and fish species, and for sustaining a vital subsistence fishery for Alaskan villages. Given that most Arctic lagoons are still relatively free of human impacts, they also represent some of the last naturally functioning lagoon systems in the world. Despite the ecological and cultural importance of coastal lagoons, very little research has been conducted on lagoon fish communities in the western Arctic. Local fishermen have observed the loss of “countless numbers” of whitefish in some areas of the western Arctic, emphasizing the need to understand, and if necessary, respond to the factors driving perceived declines.

Yellow-billed Loons (Gavia adamsii) are an important species for the area and depend on both marine and fresh water habitats. Considered one of the ten rarest breeding birds of the United States, the species is of international concern with a global population estimated at 16,650-21,000 (Earnst 2004). Approximately 20-25% of this global population occurs seasonally in Alaska, where the summer breeding population is estimated at less than 5,000. As top-level trophic predators, Yellow-billed Loons that migrate annually to the Yellow Sea are susceptible to contaminant bioaccumulation. Because the life history of these birds includes returning to the same nesting grounds each year, they are good subjects for long-term monitoring.

Current Projects

Since 2011, the NPS has placed heightened focus on coastal and lagoon environments. Several recent planning efforts for Northwestern Arctic spill response illustrated large gaps in the biological and physical understanding of coastal systems and a significant deficiency in spill response containment capabilities. Over the past two years, the coastal Arctic parks have begun to address these data gaps with significant project funding for applied coastal research. Of particular note are the following four projects: (1) community integrated response planning, (2) whitefish ecology and seasonal use in lagoons, (3) shorebird census and species of special concern, and (4) marine debris cleanup and education.
Project Years Funded Status
ShoreZone. Gathering a Pre-spill Baseline for Bering Land Bridge and Cape Krusenstern Prior to Potential Oil Spills Using the ShoreZone Protocol: This project mapped the coastline from Wales to Pt. Hope, gathering georeferenced video and still photos (available at www.shorezone.org). Map data layers include dominant invertebrates, vascular plants, wave energy, oil residency indices, and sensitivity. ShoreZone provides much needed support in terms of gross assessment of coastal risks of oil spill, imagery for decision support on spill response, and a photographic baseline. 2012-2013 Complete
Coastal Synthesis Report. Development of an Arctic Parks Coastal Resources Synthesis Report 2013 Pending
Post-breeding Shorebird Use of Coastal Tide Flats in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Seward Peninsula, Alaska 2013-14 Complete
Coastal Avian Synthesis Report. Synthesis of Historical and Contemporary Information on the Avian Fauna of Cape Krusenstern and Bering Land Bridge 2013 In Progress
Shorebird Pilot Project. Seasonal Use and Population of Bering Land Bridge Shorebirds at Ikpek Lagoon 2013 Complete
Post-breeding Shorebird Use of Coastal Marsh and Tidal Mudflats at Sisualik Lagoon, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Alaska 2014 Complete
SAR Imagery for Yellow-billed Loons. Assess Fish Availability for Yellow-billed Loons by Remotely Assessing Lake Freezing in Cape Krusenstern and Bering Land Bridge 2015-17 In Progress
Western Arctic Parklands Waterbird Census and Special Population Surveys. Population Status and Spatial Distribution of Breeding and Post-Breeding Waterbirds 2015-17 In Progress
Marine Debris. Remove Marine Debris from Five Parks and Involve Schools and Local Communities 2015-16 Ongoing
Community Integrated Coastal Incident Preparedness. This project field truths U.S. Coast Guard and State of Alaska Geographic Response Strategies, develops vessel traffic modelling for the Bering Straits/Southern Chukchi region, and holds incident training in communities 2015-17 In Progress
Whitefish Ecology. Assess Kotzebue Sound Whitefish Ecology and Seasonal Dynamics 2015-17 In Progress
Coastal Interpretation. Interpreting Coastal Science in the Western Arctic National Parklands in the Digital Age, Developing Story Maps and Generating Content for Web Presentation 2015 In Progress
Arctic I&M Network Lagoons Vital Sign Ongoing from 2011 In Progress
Arctic I&M Network Yellow-billed Loons Vital Sign. Population and Nest Count of Yellow-billed Loons Ongoing from 2009 In Progress
Coastal projects completed or in progress, 2011-2017
Project Years Funded
Coastal Environmental Sensitivity Index. Updating Coastal Environmental Sensitivity Indices for Emergency Response Applications 2016-2017
Coastal Environmental Sensitivity Index. Updating Coastal Environmental Sensitivity Indices for Emergency Response Applications 2016
Arctic I&M Network Lagoons Vital Sign. Ongoing Measurements of Physical Water Parameters, Chlorophyll A, Benthic Invertebrates, Nearshore Fish, and Pelagic Fish Ongoing
Arctic I&M Network Yellow-billed Loons Vital Sign. Ongoing Population and Nest Surveys for Yellow-billed Loons Ongoing
Yellow-billed Loons Contaminants. Assessment of Contaminants Burdens in Alaskan Yellow-billed Loons: Cape Krusenstern and Bering Land Bridge 2018
Geomorphological and Vegetation Classification. Preparing for Oil Spills Through Ecological Classification of the Bering Land Bridge and Cape Krusenstern Coastlines 2018-2019

Future Projects

A number of funded projects will complement the preparedness agenda the Arctic coastal parks and the Arctic I&M Network have begun. The goal of these projects is increased baseline data acquisition so parks will have information in the event of a spill to better assess and mitigate natural resource damage.

Conclusions

The Arctic coastal parks are currently facing a new set of threats brought about primarily by climate change and associated economic trends. While the magnitude of future shipping in the Chukchi Sea is not currently known, the likelihood of some type of marine incident grows larger each year with increased vessel traffic. Physical scientists have predicted that the Arctic may be free of summer ice by 2040 (Wang and Overland 2009) or sooner. Vessel traffic modeling based on a retrospective analysis of ship traffic data may help quantify the likelihood of a marine incident.

Remote parks, people, and cultures are finding themselves increasingly in the midst of complex and novel situations. With President Obama’s visit to Kotzebue in summer 2015 and the United States assuming leadership of the Arctic Council (2015-2017), we are hopeful that the attention, partnerships, and funding may emerge to bring increased focus on the coastal issues of the northwest Arctic.

References


Arctic Council. 2009.
Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report. 5.5. Bering Strait Region Case Study. Arctic Council. Available at: http://www.pame.is/images/03_Projects/AMSA/AMSA_Background_Research_Docs/Scenarios/5.5-Bering-Strait-Region-Case-Study.pdf (accessed December 1, 2016)

Azzara, A., H. Wang, and D. Rutherford. 2015.
A 10-year projection of maritime activity in the U.S. Arctic region. A report to the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System. The International Council on Clean Transportation, Washington D.C. 20005. Contract DTMA91P140125.

Earnst, S. 2004.
Status and Assessment and Conservation Plan for the Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii). Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5258. U.S. Geological Survey.

Lawler, J., S. Miller, D. Sanzone, J. Ver Hoef, and S. Young. 2009.
Arctic Network vital signs monitoring plan. Natural Resource Report NPS/ARCN/NRR—2009/088. National Park Service.

Manley, W. and L. Lestak. 2012.
Protocol for high-resolution geospatial analysis of coastal change in the Arctic Network of Parks. Natural Resource Report NPS/ARCN/NRR—2012/537. National Park Service.

National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). 2015.
Arctic sea ice news and analysis. Available at: http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/ (accessed December 1, 2016)

NOAA and University of New Hampshire Coastal Response Research Center. 2012.
Northwest Arctic Borough Oil Spill Workshop: Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) & Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), May 22-23, 2012.National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Coastal Response Research Center. Available at: http://www.crrc.unh.edu/sites/crrc.unh.edu/files/media/docs/Workshops/nwab_12/NWAB_workshop_report_appendices.pdf
(accessed Deccember 1, 2016)

Wang, M. and J. Overland. 2009.
A sea ice free summer Arctic within 30 years? Geophysical Research Letters 36: L07502, doi:10.1029/2009GL037820.

Last updated: April 6, 2017