Drones are changing how Canadian scientists monitor Arctic climate change

By Steve Ducharme, Nunatsiaq News - January 5, 2017
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Cliffs along the western Canadian Arctic coastline are eroding at an increasingly rapid pace, threatening to impact animals, plants and people in the area.

But a team of scientists from the Geological Survey of Canada has found a cheap and novel way to monitor the phenomenon: combining off-the-shelf drones with 3D imagery that tracks erosion year-to-year without breaking the bank.

“It’s magnitudes cheaper, maybe even ten times cheaper,” coastal geologist for the Geological Survey of Canada, Dustin Whalen, told Nunatsiaq News, Dec. 16, comparing his do-it-yourself tech to more expensive LIDAR imagery — or light detection and ranging, a remote sensing method shot from an airplane.

Whalen and his team recently tracked about 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) of coastline with a drone in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, in the Mackenzie-Beaufort Delta of the Northwest Territories.

Using a $1,500 drone you can purchase online from electronic stores, the scientists confirmed that erosion is accelerating at a rapid rate, even compared to data recorded 20 years ago.

That rate of coastal change has increased between 20 and 200 per cent since 2000, Whalen and his team note in a report on their work.

That’s especially true with cliffs larger than five metres in height which are more susceptible to climate change and warming temperatures that destabilize load-bearing permafrost.

“Eighty-five percent of the coastline is eroding in the western Canadian Arctic. Of that, I think 65 percent of the Arctic is cliffs over five meters and our data has shown that all cliffs over five meters are accelerating [in that area],” Whalen said.

Many of the cliffs in the region being studied by the Geological Survey of Canada hang between 15 and 18 meters (about 50 to 60 feet) over the coastline.

“Some of these blocks coming off are the size of a three-story home and they’re falling off every season.”

And the impacts will be felt locally, Whalen said.

In Tuktoyaktuk — on the northern coast of the NWT — a nearby island that serves as a natural breakwater continues to erode and deposit sediment into the community’s harbour, creating shallower water and new hazards for boats.

Animals in the region will also have to adapt.

“Through our discussions with some of the locals, there is an impact. They’re seeing changes in the local fisheries. Is that caused by erosion? Possibly,” Whalen said.

“Any sort of species that lives in that area is now being faced with, in the last 10 to 15 years, the grand change of coping with more sediment in their space.”

It’s one recorded instance that Whalen and his team are defining as “unprecedented.”

But now, having discovered a cheaper way to monitor the changes, the Geological Survey of Canada can afford to return to that approximately 1,000-km stretch of the Arctic coast year after year, to compile a data record.

“In the past, researchers relied on historical air photos, satellite imagery and ground-based positional measurements at coastal monitoring sites for their data,” Natural Resources of Canada said in an accompanying statement.

“Using [drones] has proven to be an efficient, low-cost, and rapid method for remote sensing and monitoring of dynamic natural environments and has proven particularly suitable in remote or poorly accessible areas such as these.”

Whalen said that’s a perk of the growing availability of cheap, high-performance, unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, technology.

“The main point of us using the drone is really how much we’re gaining from such an easy thing to use, and a cheap way to collect amazing data,” he said.

“It’s quite spectacular that the innovation of technology has allowed us to do that.”