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Creating the world’s first map of the Arctic permafrost

Permafrost coasts are one of the most dynamic ecosystems on Earth and they are undergoing rapid change. The EU-funded Nunataryuk project assessed the impacts of thawing coastal and subsea permafrost on the global climate. Their work on adaptation and mitigation strategies is also helping to build resilience in Arctic coastal populations.

©GRID-Arendal/Nunataryuk | source:

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Climate change is warming the Arctic faster than any region on the planet, and permafrost is rapidly thawing. As the majority of human activity in the Arctic happens along permafrost coasts, this is bringing transformative change to the region, with impacts profoundly affecting biodiversity and human societies. 

The impacts of thawing permafrost are multifaceted. Thawing ground is susceptible to erosion, leading to lost land and coastal waters flooded with nutrients and sediment. Access to sea ice, critical for both marine life and traditional societies who hunt and fish for their livelihoods, is shifting. And infrastructure in the Arctic is jeopardised as the ground beneath it becomes unstable.

“These hazards have various consequences for the lives of people living in these communities that require a set of already existing or needed adaptation measures,” says Hugues Lantuit, head of the Arctic coastal erosion research group at the Alfred Wegener Institute and Nunataryuk project coordinator.

The Nunataryuk project brought together world-leading experts in natural science and socio-economics to investigate the full impacts of thawing coastal and subsea permafrost.

Mapping the subsea permafrost and tapping into local knowledge

The first step for the Nunataryuk team was to map the spatial extent of subsea permafrost on the Arctic continental shelf. This was based on modelling across the Arctic, with results validated locally using existing borehole data.

“Together with our knowledge on carbon stored in subsea permafrost and actual and future thawing rates, we are able to better establish the role of thawing subsea permafrost in the global climate. And it is thawing,” adds Lantuit.

Fieldwork and modelling were both critical to the project, to learn about how permafrost and climate are tied together, and to fill in grey areas in our knowledge and on maps. But the researchers’ work was most significantly informed by consultations with local people in Arctic coastal communities.

A conceptual risk framework was developed as a next step, in a co-production process between Nunataryuk researchers and locals. This framework built a foundation for identifying impacts, risks and adaptation strategies along the Arctic permafrost coast.

In co-production with locals and guided by this risk framework, Nunataryuk researchers then identified the main ‘life domains’ associated with permafrost thaw impacts in four case study regions along the Arctic Coast: Ilulissat and Qeqertarsuaq in West Greenland; Longyearbyen in Svalbard; the Beaufort Sea Area and Mackenzie River Delta in Canada; and Northern Sakha (Yakutiya) in Russia.

The first map of Arctic permafrost

One of the significant achievements of the project was the creation of the Arctic Permafrost Atlas, the first atlas of permafrost in the Arctic and beyond.

The atlas is a translation and consolidation of all available knowledge about permafrost, combining results from the Nunataryuk project, experience of local communities and information from the wider scientific community.

“It is a timely book suffused with the compelling enthusiasm of its authors and contributors,” remarks Lantuit. “Close to a hundred individuals participated in its making, and it does a magnificent job at describing permafrost with maps, words, art and stories.

Far from being an academic product in the traditional sense, it gathers the knowledge from the voices of scientists, indigenous peoples, northern residents and local practitioners to provide a holistic and inclusive view of today’s challenges in the ‘country of permafrost’.

“We hope this unique source of information on permafrost will facilitate discussion – and above all, action – towards a more sustainable management of our climate and environment,” says Lantuit.

A long-term research network in the Arctic

The project also established a vibrant network of researchers and local communities in the Arctic. “This can only be done by building trust and working together over the long term,” explains Lantuit.

Based on these partnerships, the team secured funding for a follow-up project, ILLUQ, which will provide the first holistic approach to permafrost thaw, pollution, health and well-being in the Arctic.

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: Germany
Project participants:
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 11 467 318
EU Contribution
€ 11 467 318
Project duration

See also

More information about project Nunataryuk

All success stories