Beaufort Sea shoreline rapidly washing away

Shoreline bluffs between Barrow and Prudhoe Bay are tumbling into the Beaufort Sea about twice as fast as they were just 25 years ago, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

That could eventually pose problems for coastal villages and oil-drilling ventures, The research by Anchorage-based USGS scientists and others focused on a 40-mile-long swath of coastline near Teshekpuk Lake -- a fossil fuel and wildlife-rich area highly valued by oil companies and Native subsistence hunters. It lies within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, about 90 miles southeast of Barrow.

In the 1960s and 1970s, about 20 feet of shoreline there eroded into the sea each year, the study found. The loss of land increased to about 28 feet a year during the 1980s and 1990s. From 2002 through 2007, however, the rate of erosion at the site jumped to 45 feet per year.

That might just represent a temporary period of heightened erosion in a region that seems to erode faster than just about anywhere else in the circumpolar Arctic, or it might be a dramatic manifestation of climate change, said USGS geographer Benjamin Jones, lead author of a paper published this week by the American Geophysical Union.

The authors note that the fastest erosion occurred during a period of rapid decline in summer sea ice, which, when present, protects the coastal bluffs from summer storms. During 2007, the year Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest level on record, the authors documented some sections of coastline that lost 80 feet to erosion.

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