Alaska Superstorm Lashes Villages Already Hit Hard by Climate Change

The massive storm currently bearing down on Alaska is bringing hurricane-force winds, blizzard conditions, damaging storm surges and battering waves to the highly vulnerable western Alaska coastline. The National Weather Service has referred to the storm as “epic”, and so far, the dire forecasts are proving correct. This superstorm has the potential to do severe damage to Alaskan communities that are less resilient to such events than they once were, due to ongoing impacts from global climate change and other factors.

The storm's center has a minimum air pressure reading comparable to Hurricane Irene that struck the East Coast in August, and the broad fetch of strong winds is causing coastal flooding in Nome, Kivalina, and other villages. According to The Weather Channel, a wind gust of 89 miles per hour at Wales, Alaska, and a storm surge exceeding six feet in Nome have already been observed.

This image shows the coastal flood threat from the Bering Sea Superstorm. Credit: NWS.

You can follow breaking details of this massive storm via The Weather Channel, The National Weather Service Alaska Region, The Weather Service's Facebook page, Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Alaska media outlets such as the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch, and KTUU. The dominant hashtag on Twitter is #akstorm.

For years, coastal storms have been increasingly eroding away villages like Kivalina and Shishmaref. A key factor making this current storm so dangerous, and much of the storm damage in recent years, has been the late formation of protective shorefast sea ice cover in the fall (shorefast ice, described more below, is ice that forms along the shoreline). The ice has been forming too late to offer much protection from the typical strong storms that affect this region, let alone a rare superstorm like this one.

Flood projection for Nome, Alaska on Nov. 9. Credit: NWS.

The villages are acutely aware of their climate change-related vulnerability. Kivalina, for example, is a narrow, five-mile long barrier island bordered by the Chukchi Sea on the west and the Kivalina Lagoon on the east. The village's highest elevation point is just ten feet above sea level. 

After witnessing years of increasingly threatening erosion, Kivalina went so far as to file suit against ExxonMobil and other companies for polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming. The public nuisance lawsuit, which was dismissed but is pending appeal, seeks damages to pay for the relocation of the town to higher ground. 

A 2007 “Local Hazards Mitigation Plan” for Kivalina, approved by FEMA, includes many details on the “inevitable” need to relocate the town, which would be an example of a rather extreme form of climate adaptation. The plan discusses the protective features of shorefast ice:

Shorefast ice creates a barrier of grounded ice along the shore; waves break against the ice or are reduced in energy, rather than striking directly against the shore where erosion occurs. Local observations indicate that in recent years, shorefast ice has formed later in the year than usual, leaving the village without protection from fall sea storm flooding.   

For nearly two decades, the steady erosion of the shoreline at Kivalina has been viewed with growing alarm. The potential loss of the town site to the encroaching sea provides ample justification for its relocation. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that this trend will cease in light of the global forces that appear to be contributing to it.  

Without addressing global scale effects on the Arctic climate, it is sufficient to note that some of the end effects have potentially dire consequences for Kivalina and other villages located on or near Arctic Ocean shorelines.  The steady diminution of the Arctic Ocean ice pack enhances the potential for increased coastal erosion in at least two ways: 

• Larger expanses of ice-free water provide longer fetches over which winds can generate ocean waves that are higher, longer, and thus potentially more destructive to the shorelines where they ultimately dissipate their energy. 

• Since the early 1980s the time between spring break-up of land-fast sea ice and autumn freeze-up along Arctic shorelines has increased from barely three months to as much as five months.  This substantially extends the “season” for coastal erosion.