Polar Sea 360°

Episode 08

Melting Land

Summer Field Work at Herschel Map it

By Stefanie Weege, a geologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany. She is part of a junior group of young scientists called COPER (coastal permafrost erosion, organic carbon and nutrient release in the Arctic near-shore zone). She spends her summer time at Herschel Island in the Canadian Yukon Territory where erosion has assumed considerable dimensions.

Herschel Island, Yukon

After I graduated I wanted a job that allowed me to travel and discover the world – just like my grandfather. After absolving a “work and travel” program in New Zealand where I could enjoy the beautiful landscape, I decided to study geoscience. This is the reason why I travelled all around the world during the last twelve years. I discovered my interest in the Arctic and the significant climatic change in the Polar Regions during my time at the university in Svalbard, Norway. Currently, I’m writing my doctoral thesis on coastal erosion along the Yukon coast in northwestern Canada, which is right at the border to Alaska.

“In Arctic Canada the soil contains so much ice it melts almost like a scoop of ice-cream in summer”

In the summer of 2012 and 2013 I had the opportunity to fly with my colleagues to an island – 10km wide, no permanent inhabitants – called Herschel Island to do some field studies. Our base was on Herschel Island but my field work took place within a radius of 80km, so I had to walk a lot over bumpy tundra. We also travelled by boat and even by helicopter.

My dissertation will focus mainly on a special phenomenon of thawing, called “retrogressive thaw slump,” which describes coastal erosion areas that are up to 500 meters wide and u-shaped. They occur when permafrost ground containing ice and sediment thaws.

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“Scientists estimate that permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere”

Permafrost is any kind of soil that is frozen for two consecutive years or more. In Germany there are very few square kilometers of permafrost; it exists way up on the mountain Zugspitze. Retrogressive thaw slumps occur at steep coastlines where waves move away the sediment thus exposing the ice contained in the ground. Due to the higher air temperature and the solar radiation, the exposed ice melts, again causing more and more soil to erode into the ocean.

The same process is happening on the German island Rügen in the Baltic Sea where waves are eroding the sediment. In Canada, however, the soil contains much more ice and so it melts almost like a scoop of ice-cream in summer. Along the Yukon coast there are numerous “slumps“ and they may erode up to 9 meters of land per year, which means if there was a house 90 meters from the coast, it could fall into the sea within less than ten years. This is exactly what will happen to a lot of Inuit, the aboriginal inhabitants of this region, and their houses.

Prof. Dr. Hugues and I both study the causes and size of slumps and the effects they have when these big quantities of sediment are exposed and begin to thaw. Most of the sediment falls into the oceans; the major part of it consists of organic material from animals (in Russia mammoths) and plants which was frozen in the soil and stored as organic carbon in the permafrost. Our research work is also focused on finding out when and how much organic carbon is released by thawing. When we have concrete data other scientists may then investigate how much organic carbon is actually transformed by bacteria in the tundra and by micro-organisms in the ocean and then released into the atmosphere.

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“Journeys to such isolated areas show me the beauty of our planet, but also the vulnerability of nature”

We still don’t know how much carbon enters the atmosphere by thawing permafrost. However, scientists estimate that permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere in current conditions. This shows that only minimal changes in the atmospheric carbon content result in a substantial impact on global warming and climatic changes.

When we are out in the field, we use GPS points and satellite data to document the annual retrogression of land. Especially GPS gives us precise data of any changes. In addition, we set up weather stations indicating the local weather. We also have stations measuring how much sediment and ice thaws and drains off into the sea. Furthermore, we take samples of the permafrost and the already thawed muddy soil that actually looks and feels like liquid Nutella, however doesn’t taste like it (it rather stinks). On the basis of the samples we then determine age, source, and distinctive chemical parameters such as its carbon content.

Field work in pristine islands such as Svalbard and Herschel Island give me my motivation for the scientific work I do. Journeys to such isolated areas show me the beauty of our planet, but also the vulnerability of nature. When I go to these places, I recognize how small I am and how eerie severe weather, heavy seas or even bears can be. Journeys to such isolated areas show me the beauty of our planet, but also the vulnerability of nature and of peoples such as the Inuit in the face of global human impact.

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Eroding Arctic Permafrost Map it

By Prof. Dr. Hugues Lantuit, a permafrost geo-morphologist and professor at the University of Potsdam, Germany. Currently he is the head of the research team investigating soil erosion at the coast of Herschel Island in the Canadian Yukon Territory. He is leading a junior team of young scientists called COPER (coastal permafrost erosion, organic carbon and nutrient release in the Arctic near-shore zone), which studies erosion of permafrost in the Arctic.

Herschel Island, Yukon

Permafrost is soil, sediment, or rock whose permanent temperature is below the freezing point of water for a minimum of two consecutive years. Its layer thickness and depth varies. The soil of the Arctic, Siberia, and regions such as the Zugspitze in the Alps, which are frozen up to a depth of 1500 metres, is considered the biggest carbon reservoir of the earth, with an approximate carbon level twice as high as in the atmosphere. The thawing of this ground (ice and soil) will trigger a process also known from compost heaps in gardening. Bacteria and micro-organisms will begin to decompose great parts of the organic material from animals or plants which are contained in the soil. This carbon, bound in organic soil, is then transformed to methane or carbon dioxide, both greenhouse gases enforcing global warming and thus also accelerating the thawing of the remaining permafrost. This self-reinforcing process is also called permafrost feedback loop.

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“Two thirds of the Arctic coasts are not composed of rock but of permafrost”

So far, the future extent of the feedback loop can only be estimated; however, we know with certainty that it must not be underestimated by anybody. All coasts in the Arctic (except glaciers) consist of permafrost but two thirds are made of sediment, not rock. It is exactly these coasts that are most affected by erosion. They only remain intact because they are frozen by permafrost. The coasts made of rock would react similarly to waves if they weren’t frozen. It is exactly these coasts that are affected most by erosion. The most dramatic changes are those of the Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea and Beaufort Sea where, in some parts, erosion rates reach up to eight metres per year. As one third of all coasts can be found in Arctic permafrost regions, coastal erosion could affect huge areas. Generally, Arctic coasts react more sensitively to global warming than coasts in temperate climate zones. Up to now they have always been protected from wave erosion by vast sea ice areas. However, this protection is now in danger due to the continuous retrogression of sea ice and we may expect rapid changes of a situation that had been stable for millennia.

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Arctic Whaling Map it

Nuligak, an Inuvialuit man, was born in 1895 and grew up during Herschel Island’s transformation from a small Inuvialuit settlement to an important, bustling whaling station. When Nuligak was 60 years old, he wrote down the stories of his life in Inuvialuktun - from childhood to adult life as a hunter. Nuligak witnessed massive changes in Inuit life and culture during the 19th and 20th centuries when Herschel Island became one of the most prominent anchorages of the late Arctic whaling industry. Fr. Maurice Metayer, O.M.I., translated and edited Nuligak's written account and it was published as the book I, Nuligak, the first Inuit-Canadian autobiography. Excerpts of this book are featured below.

Herschel Island, Yukon

In the late 19th century the price of baleen skyrocketed in the South. Baleen, a food-filtration system in whales’ mouths, is made of keratin and is arranged across the upper jaw, resembling bristles. People collected baleen for its strength and flexibility; it was often used in corsets, parasols, and collar stiffeners. In their urgency to collect baleen, American whaling ships depleted whale populations in the Western Arctic and began looking for new whale stocks. In 1888 a large, safe harbour for whaling ships to overwinter was found at Qikiqtaryuk, Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea, one of the last refuges of the shrinking species.

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The Big Umiak Island

When summer came Uncle Kralogark took us west to Herschel Island, the island that Eskimo called Krekertariuk [Qikiqtaryuk]. Crowds of Eskimos came there. That fall I saw some very large ships. The sailors we met always had something in their mouths, something they chewed. It so intrigued me that I kept staring at their jaws. One certain day that ‘thing’ was given to me. I chewed – it was delicious. It was chewing gum. From that day I was able to recognize some of these white men’s things.

Wintering there in Herschel Island were three ice-bound ships. The first, a very large one, was a three-master, the Bowhead. The Jeannette had two masts, and was also quite large. The third, the Bonanza, was a rather small two-master. In those days I never forgot what attracted my attention because I was the iliapak, the poor little orphan boy.

Boats fitted for whaling were numerous. White men and Alaskan Inuit made up their crews. They had an abundance of white whale meat and they gave us maktak. During the whole winter the Inuit had their dances to the sound of drums. I often lingered to listen to them. The Eskimos from Hope Point, Alaska, were really remarkable singers and dancers. It was a pleasure to watch them.


In 1890 – 91 The Pacific Steam Whaling Company’s two smallest vessels, the Mary D. Hume and Grampus were the first ships to overwinter at Herschel Island. These two particular ships were too small to carry the tools to reduce blubber into oil but the steep price of baleen compared to oil encouraged whalers to collect only the baleen, throwing away the rest of the whale. This created an unprecedented amount of waste, in an already wasteful industry; whalers would decapitate the bowhead whales and then dump the body back into the sea, leaving hundreds of floating, headless whales. In 1891, the Hume’s first year in the Beaufort, it harvested 37 Bowhead whales for their baleen. Inuvialuit witnessed the slaughter but were allowed no say in the management of the diminishing species, which they relied on for survival.

In the Mountains

The sea ice was covered with water. Finally we reached Herschel. Herschel! The great big town! I felt very happy at the sight of so many houses. Because baleen was so profitable, the whites had raised big buildings, stores, houses, and a work ship with a forge. They had also built a watchtower with a fog-horn. In foggy weather a blast of the siren was answered by the boats caught in the fog. Thus answering signal after signal, they were guided safely into port.

“Baleen was so profitable the whites had raised big buildings, stores, houses, and a work ship”

I often heard about hunting expeditions. This whaler, for instance, had taken a considerable number of whales. In spring when the whaling ships left for the hunting season, they would break ice to free themselves. The ice that had borne Inuit and their sleds in their seal hunts, the same ice split open by wind or currents, the whalers broke it. Because the ice surrounding Herschel was cut open by the ships, it was very quickly driven by the wind from all around the island.

By 1893 the whaling industry was thriving. Thirteen whaling ships hunting east of Herschel Island harvested 286 whales in one season. Inevitably, the bowhead population became severely exploited. Whaling ships hired large numbers of Inuit from Alaska, Canada, and as far away as Siberia to work on the ship or as professional hunters. Hunting and trading become a new source of income for Inuvialuit like Nuligak. During the winter the crews traded for fresh meat and fish with nearby Inuit camps.


That summer the whalers’ catch was scanty. Too much ice, therefore very few whales were taken. The western wind had blown steadily all summer. The ships that had to return home weighed anchor about mid-August. But they could not break through the ice surrounding Herschel, and were forced to return. They were short of supplies, and did not have enough food to spend another winter here, but the ice was so thick that it blocked the way. The three-masters possessed steam engines, and so considerable power. They kept butting back and forth, engines at full steam, in a vain effort to shift the ice.

There were five of these vessels: the three-masted ships Thrasher, Alexander, and Bowhead, and two schooners, two-masters, the Karluk and the Jeannette. White man’s food was scanty aboard these ships at Herschel. Then it was that the Eskimos, whether crew members or neighbours, were of great assistance. A good number of them went caribou hunting in the mountains.


These sailors knew a hundred different ways of amusing themselves. They had different kinds of musical instruments. That winter for the first time in my life I saw a white man dance a jig. I was amazed at his agility. When the white men were on ice-hauling duty they used a huge sled, like those dragged by tractors today. It took twelve of them to pull it, hauling an enormous load of ice blocks. It was a real spectacle to watch such a team on the top of a hill!

I have seen a good number of those sailors escaping. I have also seen some of them being brought back by the Inuit who had followed them. They were cruelly frost-bitten. One day I saw two carried back on a sled. One was dead; the other still lived, although his feet were frozen as hard as wood. All these people were trying to reach Dawson on foot.

At its height in 1895 -96 the Herschel Island settlement had up to 1000 people and thirteen ships overwintered during the winter. Sailors entertained themselves with sports and games but during long, cold winters with little to do, problems arose. Rumours of gold along the Yukon River aroused the interest of bored sailors, causing desertions from the whaling crews every winter; although, few of them ever made it. Alcohol also caused problems. The Pacific Seam Whaling Company didn’t allow its men to trade whiskey; nevertheless, an alcohol trade developed.

The Bewitched Drunkard

The population of Krekertariuk was quite considerable and mixed. There were Alaskan Eskimos and a large group of Inuit from the Siberian coast who were working on the ships. Whaling was done on a grand scale, and there were a great number of whaling vessels. Whalebone brought a good price in those days. I heard that it sold for seven dollars a pound.

“There were drinking bouts almost every day. People would drink anything”

There were drinking bouts almost every day. People would drink anything; the Alaskan Inuit are renowned for that. One day while we were playing, our attention was drawn to an Eskimo who had drunk too much. It had taken three people, the minister and two other white men, to subdue him and tie him securely with ropes. Bound hand and foot, he was thrown into a house and the single door locked after him.

By the winter of 1896 – 97 ships needed to travel further and further east to make a catch; people doubted the future success of the whaling industry. Herschel Island continued to be the resupply point until 1908 when the whale bone market collapsed and the practice was abandoned. Now, only remnants of the whaling industry remain on Herschel Island, but the people of the Beaufort Sea area continue to feel the consequences of the period, today.

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Climate Change: Reading the Signs in Shrubs Map it

By Isla Myers-Smith, a plant ecologist first attracted to Arctic research by the adventure of working in the North. Now, in the hopes of understanding how the Arctic is quickly evolving due to climate change, she studies vegetation changes in tundra ecosystems

Herschel Island, Yukon

My first visits to the North were as a child with my parents who were also biologists. Inspired, I moved to Alaska to study permafrost and fire in the boreal forest for my Masters degree. It was there that I first learned about the links between shrub growth and climate change in the Arctic. About a decade ago, there was very little research on shrub development in the Canadian Arctic, but now there is a large team of us working to figure out why shrubs are changing at sites around the tundra biome.

“It’s one of the most dramatic climate change alterations observed in the tundra”

Herschel Island, where I do my research, is a magical place in the Arctic. Perhaps it’s the historical buildings, or the beluga whales, snowy owls, and musk oxen. Perhaps it’s the fields of wild flowers in early summer and dramatic permafrost slumps along the coast or the camaraderie with people on the island. Or perhaps it’s all of these things together.

The island, also known as Qikiqtaruk, has a long human history for such a remote site. It was inhabited by the Thule people and has been used as a summer hunting ground or village site by the Inuvialuit people for hundreds of years. At the turn of the 1900s it was an overwintering site for whaling ships. It was estimated that over 1500 people overwintered on the island between 1893 and 1894. The long human history enables my research because many historical photos have been taken at the site, which I use to explore vegetation and landscape change, in particular the increase in height and depth of shrubs.


“The changes that are occurring now will have long lasting effects on tundra ecosystems”

These photographs are a rare historical phenomenon for the Arctic region but are extremely useful. At the whaler graves we are retaking photographs and measuring the shrub patches that are currently growing there. We use photographs from around 1900, the 1950s, 1970s, and 80s from different sites on the island and compare them to contemporary photographs to understand the rate of vegetation change.

The increase in shrubs has been observed at sites across the tundra biome from Alaska to Siberia. It’s one of the most dramatic climate change alterations observed in the tundra, ecosystems north of the treeline. Shrubs are the “trees” of the tundra, often growing above the other plants shading out the sun-loving species. As growing conditions warm up, these shrub species grow taller and patches expand outwards, as you can see in these two photos from the 1980s and 2013. Across tundra landscape an increase in shrubs can lead to a decrease in other species such as lichens, one of the favourite foods of caribou, leading to changes to the entire tundra ecosystem.

A variety of factors could be leading to the increase in shrubs in tundra ecosystems. Summer climate warming could be stimulating faster shrub growth. Permafrost thaw could be increasing the nutrients available for plants. Disturbance could be allowing new shrub patches to establish. Warmer winter conditions could be limiting the amount of stem damage. And the list doesn’t end there!

Whatever the mechanism, an increase in shrub species could have major impacts on nutrient cycling and the flow of energy in tundra ecosystems. For example, shrubs can shade the ground surface in summer keeping the soil cool, while in winter shrubs can trap snow to insulate the soil and retain the summer warmth. These changes to soil temperatures could influence the carbon stored in soils and the state of permafrost.


” I hope that my research will both help improve global climate models and inform local peoples about changes to their ecosystems”

Shrub canopies are often darker than the surrounding tundra ecosystem, particularly in winter and spring when shrub stems extend above the snow surface. This darkening of the soil surface relative to areas without shrubs can lead to more of sun’s heat warming the tundra and create a positive feedback loop. This warming could promote the growth of shrub species, and create a feedback to increase climate warming at the global scale.

Climate change in tundra ecosystems is projected to continue, with 2 – 10°C warming, over the next 100 years. The growing seasons are getting longer. In recent years on Herschel Island, the sea ice has been retreating earlier in the summer and not reforming until late in the fall. Though the climate is warming, we don’t know whether shrubs will continue to rapidly respond to the warming climate, or whether factors such as water or nutrients might become limited, slowing the increase in shrubs.

Shrub species have long lives. Some can survive up to 300 years or more. So the changes that are occurring now will have long lasting effects on tundra ecosystems. My research indicates that dramatic increase of tundra shrubs, sometimes referred to as shrubification, is underway in the Arctic. And, there are still unknowns in our understanding of these important and increasingly dominant tundra species.

I hope that we can understand what specific factors are causing the increases in shrubs that have been observed to date across the tundra biome and what role climate change is playing in this vegetation change. I hope that my research will both help improve global climate models and will also help to inform local peoples in the North about the changes to the ecosystems in which they live.


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Haven Throughout History Map it

By Dylan Riebling, filmmaker, interactive artist, and Polar Sea Director at Herschel Island, Mackenzie Delta, and the west coast of Greenland.

July 24 - Herschel Island, Yukon

Today was one of the strangest days on the Island for me. It began ordinarily; Richard Gordon, senior park ranger at Herschel, gave us a tour of Pauline Cove and an in-depth history of Herschel Island. It’s a fascinating place, a historical meeting ground between whalers and the Inuvialuit. He also took us into a smoke hut where they had been smoking some of the Arctic char they had caught in the last couple of days. Mouth-watering, but it wouldn’t be ready until we left the Island. Drat.

But that wasn’t the strange part. I’ll admit that I had come to Herschel Island with some pretty strong preconceived notions of what it would be like. I was expecting a calm, serene outpost surrounded by uninhabited wilderness. I thought, “This Island is north of the Yukon, in the Beaufort Sea. That’s about as remote as you can get, right?”

Well yes, but…


What was strange was that the island was busy. In addition to the film crew, the researchers, the guys installing the solar panels, and the park rangers, there was a constant influx of people just dropping by, including a boatload of tourists from Corsica, an Island in the Mediterranean, who happened by today.

Further, we were paid a visit from the crew of a mysterious vessel. A team of people came onto the Island dressed in bright orange survival suits. They told everyone on the island a different story about who they were. They told me they were a government research vessel with the navy. The researchers we were with told me a different story. They took one look at the boat and identified it as a 3D scanning vessel. The most probable explanation: they were from an oil company looking for reserves.

Needless to say the Island is a busy place.

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Social Warmth in Frigid Temperatures Map it

By Richard Tegnér, Swedish architect and Arctic hitchhiker. After experiencing the Northwest Passage aboard a tiny sailboat followed by a luxurious cruise ship that comfortably fits 158 passengers, Richard now accustoms himself to the spacious Libellule, which he shares with four other men.

September 5 - Herschel Island, Yukon

Thanks to help from Primitive Entertainment, the producers of The Polar Sea television series, I found Libellule, a hydrofoil sailboat destined for Dutch Harbor. Captain Phillip Cottier and the crew have offered me a ride to help me finish my journey. Deciding whether I should enter Libellule has certainly been the most frightening moment of my trip; I don’t know them, they don’t know me. I am afraid and anxious but are these feelings reason enough to give up? I also feel horror and enthusiasm in anticipation of the continuation of this voyage. I worry about the weather and about how open the North Alaskan coast is, without any sheltering harbours. Very often in my life I avoid situations out of fear so I really want to avoid making that mistake again.


“Already things on board feel very democratic and relaxed”

But so far it has been a great opportunity to experience these vastly different vessels in such a short time. Already I can reflect about how different people choose to live their lives. Yves and Sylvain are confident and knowledgeable sailors who are comfortable with themselves and their jobs. I am so very glad that I made the decision to join Libellule. It has given me the opportunity to compare my stay on Libellule with my time on DAX. Already things on board feel very democratic and relaxed. I am really comfortable here and am amazed how smooth everything flows. Here everyone shows more respect, which means that I can relax more and do my best. The only disadvantage is the cold onboard but I can put up with it as the social warmth is so much greater.

Earlier today we went through an ice belt with varying concentration. We cruised past Baillie Island with its steep black coastline. One time we had to use the long carbon sticks to push aside the ice but mostly it was easy to maneuver between the blocks. Phillip was obviously relieved when we came through.

We’ve reached Herschel Island, a low lying island with scree (loose stones), green vegetation and gravel. Lee John, a local park ranger, showed us around the island’s collection of weathered buildings which held supplies and provided lodging for old whaling captains. Now these buildings stand as museums. Lee had just warmed up the sauna so all of us hopped in the big rusty wood burning stove, where we dumped a full bucket of water on top of steaming rocks to warm ourselves up. To bathe in the 6-degree water after the sauna felt wonderful.


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