Collaborative Research: Resilience and adaptation to the effects of permafrost degradation induced coastal erosion


Project Personel

Main Contact: Dr. Dmitry Nicolsky
Scientific Personel: Vladimir Romanovsky, Anne Jensen, Dmitry Nicolsky, Louise Farquharson

Collaborators: Ming Xiao, Christopher McComb, and Lilian Alessa
Partner Organizations: Pennsylvania State University, University of Idaho, Missouri Science and Technology University

Project duration: 
September 1, 2019 - August 31, 2024

Project Summary

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising rapidly, and these warmer temperatures have caused permafrost, ground that remains frozen for at least two consecutive years, to warm and thaw. Permafrost coasts, which make up approximately 30% of the world's coastlines, are experiencing accelerated erosion due to thawing. Erosion at some locations has occurred at the rate of 16 m per year since 2007. Degradation of permafrost and related coastal erosion damages coastal infrastructure and facilities across the Arctic, impacting the economic prosperity and lives of its inhabitants. As critical infrastructure becomes vulnerable to permafrost degradation and erosion, residents are forced to abandon homes and entire communities must be relocated. This diverts resources from other critical needs and disrupts social networks and subsistence practices. This research addresses society's capacity to adapt by analyzing interactions among the natural environment, social systems, and the built environment, in a part of the Arctic where coastal erosion due to permafrost degradation is taking place. This project co-produces knowledge with Arctic indigenous communities and will share research outcomes to inform decision-making with local communities and the general public. The project promotes NSF's initiative of Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) by involving local indigenous high school students in the collection of field data, providing workshops in local communities demonstrating how science and engineering can improve community well-being, and provides students and early-career researchers with training and capacity-building opportunities in convergent research.

The goal of this project is to understand the complex relationship between permafrost degradation and related coastal erosion, civil infrastructure, and community well-being, including social and cultural resilience. Results can be used to formulate a holistic and predictive model that aids adaptation of social systems and the built environment to the unprecedented environmental changes in the region. The project consists of five research tasks with related research products: (1) development of a thermal model with high spatial resolution (130 m) to evaluate and predict the rate, extent, and mechanisms of permafrost degradation in the next century and a maximum entropy principle model to estimate the future rate of coastal and river bluff erosion and thermokarst development; (2) creation of an infrastructure hazards map of the region experiencing the effects of permafrost degradation and coastal erosion; (3) co-production of knowledge with Arctic indigenous communities to identify and understand the most urgent issues relating to permafrost degradation and coastal erosion and flooding, as well as collecting and integrating local long-term observations of these phenomena by local observers; (4) development of a quantitative assessment model of sociodemographic resilience of communities to permafrost degradation, demonstrating the impacts of infrastructure disruptions on the social resilience and adaptation capacity of coastal communities; and (5) development of an agent-based model (ABM) that can be used to adapt civil infrastructure and build the social resilience of communities to future permafrost degradation and coastal erosion. The project works with communities along the coastal region of Alaska North Slope Borough (NSB) to develop and validate models, although results will be of value to many coastal communities experiencing permafrost-induced coastal erosion.


Permafrost thawing and the associated erosion of coasts and rivers are affecting not only infrastructure, but also culturally important aspects of tangible cultural heritage as well as culturally specific structures such as ice cellars. Location-based cultural heritage is important in helping sustain cultures in a rapidly changing world. Tangible cultural heritage is also at risk, and loss of cultural heritage puts a strain on the maintenance of the very culture that has served indigenous communities well for more than a millennium.

Research Goals: 

We will develop a permafrost dynamics module using the GIPL2 model. Input data for the permafrost dynamics module include air temperature and precipitation data, soil properties, proximity to the water, and in the case of future projections (2020-2100), climate forcing from global and regional climate models that perform the best for Alaska. High-resolution down-scaled historical temperature and precipitation observations (CRU TS 3.21) and future climate projections under two representative concentration pathways (RCPs) for 4.5 and 8.5 greenhouse gas emission scenarios. An RCP of 4.5 is a conservative scenario where greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced by the 2050s while a scenario with an RCP of 8.5 has gas emissions that increase at the highest rate. Thus, the two scenarios consider a full range of possibilities related to potential international policy changes. The soil data will either be derived from field measurements or recovered using the data assimilation techniques. To parameterize the GIPL2 model, we propose to use properties of the surface vegetation and its structure, the physiography, and the soil type characterization based on the high-resolution (30 m × 30 m) Ecosystems of Northern Alaska map.

Study Sites: 

Kaktovik, Point Lay, Utqiaġvik, and Wainwright


Plan A: During the spring of 2021 make travel plans for summer 2021 field work to visit all communities for sensor installation and drone surveys. This plan is contingent on COVID travel restrictions being lifted due to an improved situation with the virus.

Plan B: Under continued COVID travel restrictions we will begin working with communities to hire locals to install permafrost sensors during the spring of 2021. We plan to make videos that provide a step by step guide to sensor
installation and these will be supplemented by booklets that will be sent to those hired to install sensors. All necessary tools and equipment will be shipped to communities (spring – summer 2021).


We plan to install monitoring stations in each community at key locations to collect continuous data on soil temperature dynamics, snow thickness, air temperature, and soil moisture. Human disturbance sites will be selected in collaboration with the local communities and will focus on critical infrastructures such as runways, schools, freshwater lagoons and culturally sensitive locations such as cemeteries and ice cellars.

Measurements and Modeling: 






Education and Outreach: 

Our planned participation in the North Slope Science Fair in July 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic. The annual Science Fair is for the borough elementary to high school students with over 200 participants. We planed to share our field testing tools and demonstrate other engineering and science activities with local students. We hope to participate such event in summer 2021 if it is held.