The Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska is characterized by thermokarst lakes and drained lake basins, and the rate of coastal erosion has increased during the last half-century. Portions of the coast are <1 m above sea level for kilometers inland, and are underlain by ice-rich permafrost. Increased storm surges or terrestrial subsidence would therefore expand the area subject to marine inundation. Since 1976, the distribution of molting Black Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) on the Arctic Coastal Plain has shifted from inland freshwater lakes to coastal marshes, such as those occupying the Smith River and Garry Creek estuaries. We hypothesized that the movement of geese from inland lakes was caused by an expansion of high quality goose forage in coastal areas. We examined the recent history of vegetation and geomorphological changes in coastal goose habitat by combining analysis of time series imagery between 1948 and 2010 with soil stratigraphy dated using bomb-curve radiocarbon. Time series of vertical imagery and in situ verification showed permafrost thaw and subsidence of polygonal tundra. Soil stratigraphy and dating within coastal estuaries showed that non-saline vegetation communities were buried by multiple sedimentation episodes between 1948 and 1995, accompanying a shift toward salt-tolerant vegetation. This sedimentation allowed high quality goose forage plants to expand, thus facilitating the shift in goose distribution. Declining sea ice and the increasing rate of terrestrial inundation, sedimentation, and subsidence in coastal estuaries of Alaska may portend a 'tipping point' whereby inland areas would be transformed into salt marshes.
Additional publication details
Inundation, sedimentation, and subsidence creates goose habitat along the Arctic coast of Alaska