Tuktoyaktuk from air, August 2018. Tuktoyaktuk (originally Tuktuyaaqtuuq – “resembling a caribou” in Inuvialuktun) is a small Inuvialuit community of approximately 950 people, located just east of the of the Mackenzie River delta on Kugmallit Bay. Inuvialuit people have traditionally inhabited the land from Herschel Island to Cape Bathurst, but it was not until 1905 that the Tuktoyaktuk was permanently settled by chief Mangilaluk. The location was chosen based on the access to plentiful fishing and hunting grounds, as well as the well protected harbour around which the community was developed. The community’s future in now uncertain due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion.

A Vanishing Land:
Canada’s Arctic feels impact of climate change as coastline disappears into the sea

When a big storm hit Tuktoyaktuk on August 4, Beaufort Drive – the community’s main drag – was bustling with activity late into the night. Everyone’s eyes were on the Point, the north end of Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula that has made national news several times over the last couple of years as a place heavily impacted by climate and change and progressing shore erosion. 

As the ocean battered the shoreline right below the foundation of their houses, homeowners on the windward side of the Point puttered around, checking on their properties and moving their snowmobiles and trucks out of harm’s way. “I won’t be getting much sleep tonight” said Noella Cockney, one of the residents of the Point, as she watched chunks of her driveway disappear into a growing undercut beside her porch.  

Noella Cockney gets hits by a wave when trying to document the state of the shoreline just below her house during a storm on August 4, 2019.
Windward shore of the Point, Tuktoyaktuk, August 2019. At least four households on the far end of the Tuktoyaktuk’s point are now in immediate danger of being undercut by the ocean and are awaiting relocation further inland.
Sandy Adam, resident of the Point, asseses the damage the morning after the storm. Tuktoyaktuk, August 2019.
A flooded road in Tuktoyaktuk after a couple of days of strong North West wind, August 2019.
A map showing both the historic and projected recession of Tuktoyaktuk’s shoreline up until 2100. (image courtesy of Natural Resources Canada)

It was just two years ago that Canada celebrated the opening of its first road to the Arctic Ocean, with a 137-kilometre highway that starts in Inuvik and ends in Tuktoyaktuk. The road has been a boon to the Inuvialuit community of 950 people, which has seen a massive influx of tourists eager to experience life on the country’s Northern coast. But by the end of the century, there may not be much of a community left to visit.

According to a report published by the Geological Survey of Canada, the Beaufort Sea coastal region is expected to experience the largest projected relative sea level rise of Canada’s North coast. By the end of the century water levels in the Beaufort are expected to rise by between 50 to 75 centimetres. Locally, the amount of water level change is affected by the global sea level, as well as vertical land motion. In the Canadian Arctic this land motion is primarily caused by a process called glacial isostatic adjustment – a delayed response to the surface decompressing after retreat of the continental ice sheets at the end of the last ice age.

As a result of that process, the areas that were compressed by the ice cover tend lift up, while the areas formerly located along the edge of the ice subside. Because of this process, Tuktoyaktuk is not only facing a threat from the rising water levels; the Beaufort Sea’s coastline around Tuktoyaktuk is also sinking by about 2.5 millimetres a year (20 centimetres over 80 years). These estimates refer to the movement of bedrock deep below the surface and do not account for additional land subsidence caused by factors like permafrost thaw. 

Eroded shoreline of Pelly Island, August 2018
François Malenfant, Masters of Applied Science candidate from Saint Mary’s University surveys an eroding cliff on Pelly island, August 2018.
Aerial shot of the coast of Pelly Island, August 2019.
Coastal erosion at Peninsula Point, nearby Tuktoyaktuk. August 2019
Aerial shot of the coast of Pelly Island, August 2019.
Permafrost slump on Pelly Island, August 2018.
A massive block breaking off Pelly Island, August 2018

I started to photograph the impact of climate change on the coastal landscape in the Mackenzie region in 2017. Despite having done a solid amount of research on the topic, I was not prepared to witness the scale of the damage. There are some striking examples of extreme erosion along the Beaufort coast that illustrate well how devastating the impact of global warming on the Arctic actually is. 

In August 2018 I spent six days in a research camp on Pelly Island, one of the fastest eroding places in this part of the world. Some sections of the island recede as much as 30 metres a year. In places like Pelly you are surrounded by the sounds of dripping and splotching as the exposed permafrost thaws away – you can smell it. You have to watch where you put your feet because there are deep crevasses in the tundra where the undercut blocks are beginning to separate from the island. 

One of the biggest challenges of telling this story is trying to convey that the coastline is basically made up of frozen mud up. The cliffs in my photographs are not rock. The ground beneath our feet is frozen silty clay and organic matter – and the only thing holding it all together is ice. In Tuktoyaktuk the ground is about 90 per cent ice. You can often see very significant changes in the landscape unfold over weeks, or even days. That’s why this environment is so incredibly fragile and prone to erosion.

A clump of vegetation washed into the ocean aling the eroding shore of Tuktoyaktuk Island. August 2019
Muddy runoff from eroding shore of Tuktoyaktuk Island. August 2019
A clump of grass from eroded land washed up on the beach after the storm. Pelly Island, 2018
Sediment plume along Peninsula Point, one of the most heavily eroding sites around Tuktoyaktuk. Sediment produced by thawing permafrost changes chemichal make up of the coastal waters and affects marine life.
Exposed roots underneath an undercut shore, Pelly Island 2019.

One of the biggest contributing factors to the accelerated rate of erosion is the increasingly shorter ice season. The lack of protection leaves the shore exposed to wind and waves for a longer period of time. According to the recently published report from W.F. Baird & Associates Coastal Engineers, the open water season on the Beaufort Sea around Tuktoyaktuk has increased from approximately 95 days to 110 days  since 1975.

It is projected that it will further increase by another two months by 2060, and by three to four months by 2100. Loss of sea ice opens more water surface for the prevailing winds to create bigger waves. That, combined with rising sea level, is expected to bring increasingly higher storm surge, which will continue to devastate the shoreline and man-made infrastructure. 

At least four households on the far end of the Tuktoyaktuk’s Point are now in immediate danger of being undercut by the ocean and are awaiting relocation further inland. When I photographed Noella last summer, she hoped that the new boulders added to the existing reinforcement behind her house a couple of years ago could buy her a few more years at the current location.

But the reinforced shoreline has since been breached and she is now out of time.  Her home, built by her father, may turn out to be difficult to move, especially with the shoreline creeping up closer with every stormy day, making for unsteady ground for the heavy equipment to work on. 

Storm surge enters Pokiak Lake in Tuktoyaktuk during the early hous of a major storm on August 4, 2019.

Will Tuktoyaktuk be the first community in Canada that will have to fully relocate due to climate change? You don’t have to look far to see how incredibly costly and complicated it may be – Alaskan villages of Newtok and Kivalina are facing imminent relocation due to flooding and coastal erosion, and are struggling with issues like lack of sufficient funding and infrastructure in the process.

One of the possible options that are under consideration is beach nourishment – essentially the creation of artificial beaches with material sourced at another location to protect the shore. The solution is costly and will not be attainable without outside funding. Depending on where the beach material would be sourced, the estimated cost of the project ranges between $26 million and $72 million.

There is no consensus in the community regarding possible relocation. It’ has been determined that based on the extent of the planning and research required for such a move, not to mention the need for agreement among the community members, it is not a decision that will be made any time soon. In the meantime, currently proposed remediation strategies are meant to buy Tuktoyaktuk more time so the community can make well informed choices about its future.

Pelly Island, one of my most photographed sites for this project, is expected to disappear within the next 50 years. If you don’t live in the Arctic, you may think that this is not your problem. But we are all standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff.

Drew Amagana Teddy-Adam plays on rip-rap behind his grandparents home in July 2017. When I interviewed his grandfather Sandy a year later, Sandy said that he didn’t allow his grandchildren to climb the shore reinforcement any more because it has had become too unstable from being undercut by the waves.
Driftwood creeping up on the road is a statement to Tuktoyaktuk’s growing flooding problem. August 2019
François Malenfant, Masters of Applied Science candidate from Saint Mary’s University looks over the Arctic Ocean during a research expedition on Pelly Island, August 2018.

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Written By
Weronika Murray

Weronika Murray

Weronika Murray is a photographer based in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. She has worked on a wide variety of stories in the North but her personal work often revolves around the issues of sustainability and impacts of climate change on northern communities. As someone who has lived in the Arctic full time since 2013 she has the perspective and local knowledge of someone who deals with northern issues every day. Weronika's work has been published in print and online by the Globe and Mail, Macleans, Canadian Geographic, National Geographic, Up Here Magazine, Tusaayaksat Magazine, Running Magazine Romania, Running Malaysia, Montecristo Magazine, True North Photo Journal, and others.