Dangerous Storm Threatens Coastal Villages of Alaska

48-hour NWS forecast of winds and waves in the North Pacific and Bering Strait. Note the large waves (bright colors) and strong winds (black arrows) predicted for Western Alaska. 

A storm that the National Weather Service is calling “one of the most severe Bering Sea storms on record” is approaching the western Alaska coastline, threatening to unleash winds of up to 80 miles per hour tonight and Wednesday, along with a storm surge that could inflict heavy damage on the state's isolated coastal villages. That's more damage: many of these villages have already suffered coastal erosion in recent years — erosion that has been linked to global climate change.

“Major coastal flooding with severe beach erosion is expected along the coast from Cape Krusenstern to Point Hope. This storm will have severe impact[s] on the village of Kivalina,” the Weather Service stated on its website. “Sustained wind speeds as high as 60 mph with gusts to 80 mph are expected. Storm surge along parts of the Chukchi Coast may be as much as six feet.”

An aerial view of the village of Kivalina, Alaska. Credit: flickr/US Coast Guard.

Alaska is feeling more impacts related to climate change than other parts of the country because it's located so far north, where the climate around the world warming much faster than average. One major consequence for in Alaska has been increasing damage to coastal villages from the fall storms that typically roll in from the Bering Sea at this time of year. This particular storm is unusually intense for the region, however — the worst, say meteorologists, since one that struck nearly 40 years ago.  

Typically, the presence of sea ice can help dampen the waves and storm surge that come with an event like this, which limits the damage to coastal communities. However, as sea ice has decreased in the spring and taken longer to re-form in the fall, this natural protection has diminished, exposing these villages to increased battering. Villagers in Shishmaref, located on an island just off the coast, are looking for funds to move their entire community several miles to the south, in a more secure location. The village has been inhabited at its present location for about 4,000 years.

Here's what the 2008 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment said about Shismaref's increasingly tenuous situation:

Rising temperatures are causing a reduction in sea ice and thawing of permafrost along the coast. Reduced sea ice allows higher storm surges to reach the shore and the thawing permafrost makes the shoreline more vulnerable to erosion, undermining the town's homes, water system, and other infrastructure.

The problem of coastal erosion has become increasingly serious in Shishmaref in recent years. Over a dozen houses have already had to be moved further from the sea. The 600 residents have watched as one end of their village has been eaten away, losing as much as 15 meters of land overnight in a single storm. The absence of sea ice also deprives the residents of their means of traveling to the mainland to hunt moose and caribou, as they would normally do by early November. Nowadays, the inlet is open water in the autumn…

Over the last 40 years, villagers estimate that they have lost hundreds of square meters of land. Robert Iyatunguk, erosion coordinator for the village, explains that the retreat of the sea ice is leaving the village more vulnerable to increasingly violent weather. “The storms are getting more frequent, the winds are getting stronger, the water is get- ting higher, and it's noticeable to everyone in town. If we get 12-14 foot [~4-meter] waves, this place is going to get wiped out in a matter of hours. We're in panic mode because of how much ground we're losing. If our airport gets flooded out, there goes our evacuation by plane.

The current forecast calls for waves as high as 20 feet in the Chukchi Sea, although Shishmaref may see lower wave heights than that.

Here's some important information relayed to me by Dave Snider, a broadcast meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Anchorage:

Forecasters in the office say there are usually 5-6 big storms that reach this strength each year. It seems unusual that this storm is so far North and powerful over the Bering, which they refer to as the storm graveyard. The storm track has primarily been over the West Pacific, along and South of the Aleutians and into the Gulf of Alaska since this summer.  

For this storm, the focus is on the long Southwest fetch and the very large swatch of tropical storm and hurricane force winds.

Hurricane Force Wind Warnings are posted for most of the Bering though Tuesday-Tuesday night in some cases.

Coastal flooding will also be a major issue for the Norton Sound region (including Nome).

Coastal Ice
At this point, it's not shore-fast. However, the flooding could still occur… and in some cases, might be worse with massive ice shoves. The shore-fast ice doesn't dampen the ocean swells. The ice piles up and moves ashore.  

Watching the storm
Data is sparse to non existent on the ocean.  We can use scatterometer winds (when we have the data available). But as far as buoys go, there's about 1.

And in weather like this, some in the office wonder if it will still be there in a few days.

Keep in mind, that the majority of Western Alaska isn't well off. Many villages exist through subsistence. And some villages don't have plumbing. It's a whole different world outside of Anchorage.

Update: Nick Sundt of the World Wildlife Fund just relayed this image to me, showing that the intensifying storm traversed an area of unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. This may help explain why the storm is turning from an ordinary Bering Sea disturbance into a “superstorm.”

Sea surface temperature departures from average on November 7, 2011. Credit: NOAA.

The Weather Channel has a post that includes impressive satellite imagery of the storm as it rapidly envelops Western Alaska. They have also created a Twitter list to help you keep tabs on the life-threatening storm, which the NWS is now describing as “of an epic magnitude rarely experienced.” The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang is also covering the storm.