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Drone Surveys Reveal the Extent of Arctic Coast Erosion

Ross Kelly


Drone Survey Arctic Erosion

Compared to previous surveys, the rate of erosion was discovered to be more than six times the long-term average.

Drone surveys have revealed the concerning level of erosion on the Arctic coastline, with up to one metre being lost every day, according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh.

An international team of researchers, led by the University of Edinburgh, flew drone-mounted cameras over a section of permafrost coastline on Herschel Island – also known as Qikiqtaruk – off Canada’s Yukon coast.

The study, published in The Cryosphere, was carried out in collaboration with the University of Exeter, Dartmouth College, Alfred Wegener Institute, the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Research was also supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the National Geographic Society and Horizon 2020.

Over the course of 40 days during the summer of 2017, the research team mapped the area more than seven times to examine the extent of coastal erosion. The results of the project from image-based computer models showed that the coastline had retreated by up to 14.5 metres during that period.

Compared to surveys taken spanning from 1952 to 2011, the rate of erosion in 2017 was discovered to be more than six times the long-term average. The drone surveys were conducted using two platforms; a lightweight flying-wing Zeta Phantom FX-61 equipped with a Sony RX-100ii camera and a multi-rotor DJI Phantom 4 Pro.


Storms in the Canadian Arctic are washing away increasing amounts of coastal permafrost, researchers said, which is exposed when sea ice melts during the summer. These results highlight ongoing changes that are taking place in the region, which experiences longer summer seasons due to a warming climate.

Dr Isla Myers-Smith, School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Big chunks of soil and ground break off the coastline every day, then fall into the waves and get eaten away.”

With sea ice melting earlier and reforming later in the year than previously recorded, the coastline becomes increasingly exposed. This presents more opportunities for storms to cause potentially irrevocable damage.

Across the Arctic region, changing permafrost landscapes threaten critical infrastructure which is essential to local communities such as those on Qikiqtaruk, researchers said. Significant cultural and historic sites are also being threatened by changes in the local environment.

“Shoreline change and flooding in recent history has already necessitated the relocation and raising of several historic buildings,” the research paper acknowledged.

Dr Andrew Cunliffe, Geography Department, University of Exeter, commented: “As the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of our planet, we need to learn more about how these landscapes are changing. Using drones could help researchers and local communities improve monitoring and prediction of future changes in the region.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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