DRONE surveys undertaken as part of a study led by a Scottish university have identified extreme erosion of Arctic coastlines – by up to a metre a day – due to climate change.

Storms in the Canadian Arctic are washing away increasing amounts of coastal permafrost – frozen ground – which is exposed when sea ice melts during the summer.

Researchers say results highlight the ongoing change in the region as a warming climate leads to longer summer seasons. Sea ice melts earlier and reforms later in the year than before, exposing the coastline and presenting more opportunities for storms to cause damage. An international team led by the University of Edinburgh flew drone-mounted cameras over a section of permafrost coastline on Herschel Island, also known as Qikiqtaruk, off the Yukon coast in the Canadian Arctic.

The team mapped the area seven times over 40 days. Their results, from image-based computer models, showed the coast had retreated by 14.5m during the period, and sometimes by more than a metre a day. Comparison with surveys dating from 1952 until 2011 showed the rate of erosion was more than six times the long-term average for the area.

Around the Arctic, rapidly changing permafrost landscapes threaten infrastructure essential to local communities as well as significant cultural and historic sites. Dr Isla Myers-Smith, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences said: “Big chunks of soil and ground break off the coastline every day, then fall into the waves and get eaten away.”

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