Research fellow helps Alaska communities measure erosion

February 10, 2017

Richard Buzard standing with a Sea Grant banner Richard Buzard

Anchorage, Alaska—An Alaska Sea Grant research fellow addressed the Alaska Forum on the Environment this week, about his work to connect Bristol Bay residents with tools to help them monitor shoreline erosion.

Richard Buzard, a master’s student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, gave details about a pilot project he’s working on in nearly a dozen Bristol Bay villages that trains local observers to gather information about how coastal erosion is unfolding in their communities as a result of climate change.

“It’s a low-cost method of getting a handle on how quickly coastlines are eroding in villages,” said Buzard, who is studying geology and remote sensing. "It's very cheap. At a basic level, it's just putting sticks in the ground and taking measurements, and then we come out with the GPS to lock in those measurements.”

Cover of booklet

Jackie Overbeck with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys is the principal investigator on the Alaska Sea Grant–funded project.

Most of Alaska’s rural communities are located near oceans, lakes and rivers. Nearly 90 percent of them are affected by flooding and erosion, according to a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office. Because of the vast extent of Alaska’s coastline and the lack of monitoring equipment in rural villages, the effects of shoreline change in the state are not well documented.

To assist villages in competing for federal dollars to respond to coastal erosion and flooding, more data is needed to help them qualify for funding.

“We’re approaching it from a science standpoint. But we’re hoping the villages can use the findings to leverage more funding,” Buzard said.

Buzard said residents can be easily trained to gather erosion data using survey sticks and time-lapse cameras. He’s developed a booklet that walks readers through the process, step by step.

“By having two sticks you can take a measurement from one and keep it in line with the other and just measure out to some feature. The most common one would be a bluff edge. And you measure out with a measuring tape, and you get, say 20 feet. And then you go out a month later and you take another measurement, and you get 19 feet. It’s extremely accurate. It’s really easy to do,” he said.

“It’s much better than a satellite and it’s cheaper than sending out multiple surveys,” Buzard added. The project provides the survey equipment to the communities.

This time-lapse video of coastal erosion was shot in the Bristol Bay village of Port Heiden between mid-August and mid-November 2016. 
children with monitoring equipmentRocky Mountain School middle school students collect ground-penetrating radar data to identify subsurface geologic features. Photo by Chris Maio. Click image for larger version [2 MB].

Buzard’s thesis research site is in Goodnews Bay, one of 11 villages currently involved in the project. The research team is interested in seeing the methodology developed from the project applied statewide eventually.

“Right now we’re focused on Bristol Bay. We’re testing out our method. But lots of villages around the state are expressing interest,” he said.

It’s getting harder to obtain funding for mitigation and relocation so the more data villages have to prove that they are suffering the effects of erosion the better, he said.

A Forum participant who attended Buzard’s presentation described climate-driven coastal erosion as “an illness to Mother Earth.”

“We need to start talking about a treatment plan, a cure,” she said.

Community-based erosion monitoring is akin to having residents go to a clinic and have their vital signs taken, she said. “You need to find out what’s going on so you can cure it.”

— By Paula Dobbyn

Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and outreach program, and is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agents provide assistance that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources.