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Alaska faces severe storm with less ice to protect its coasts

Lauren Morello, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, November 10, 2011

A rare and powerful storm hit the western coast of Alaska yesterday, battering communities from the Aleutian Islands to the Bering Sea with rain, snow, strong waves and hurricane-force winds.

As the storm began to move out last night, the National Weather Service warned that a lack of sea ice along Alaska's shoreline left some villages more vulnerable to severe coastal erosion and flooding from storm surge.

One area of concern is the tiny village of Kivalina, an Inupiat Eskimo whaling community located about 625 miles northwest of Anchorage on an 8-mile-long barrier island that borders the Chukchi Sea.

A rare, hurricane-like storm aims at Alaska. Photo courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In recent years, rising temperatures have caused the sea ice that protects the town from Arctic ocean storms to form later in the fall and melt earlier in the spring -- leaving Kivalina increasingly vulnerable to strong waves and storm surges that have eroded the town's shores. (In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers warned that storms could destroy the village entirely in 10 to 15 years.)

With no shorefast ice to protect Kivalina from the latest storm, the National Weather Service warned of "major damage from coastal flooding and strong winds" in Kivalina and Nome, which sits farther south along Norton Sound. The service said waters could rise 5 to 8 feet above the maximum astronomical tide.

"We do have some concern that by late tonight and into tomorrow, [Kivalina] could see water," Carven Scott, chief of the environment and sciences division at the National Weather Service's regional headquarters in Anchorage, said yesterday afternoon. "We're looking for at least 3 feet, which would put water over the roads."

Prospects for greater damage

While strong coastal storms are common in Alaska in the fall and winter months, the current storm appears to be the most severe to hit the state since November 1974, Scott said. At its peak yesterday, the storm was equivalent in strength to a Category 2 hurricane, with reports in some areas of wind gusts in excess of 100 miles per hour.

"The '74 storm was fairly similar to this one, but not identical," he said. "In '74, the ice was covering Norton Sound into Nome and well into the northern portion of the Bering Sea."

That helped lessen the damage to those areas from storm surge, he said, protection that is not available to coastal communities during this storm.

Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said the lack of shorefast sea ice this year is a sign of long-term climate change that is causing sea ice to reform later and later each fall after its annual summer melt.

"If you look at conditions right now for the Arctic as a whole, there's much less ice than we should have this time of year," Serreze said. "If this storm had hit 30 years ago, it would have caused a lot of damage, but the difference now is you don't have the sea ice to protect you. This is part and parcel of what we see in the Arctic -- it's warming, you're losing ice, and so you have these erosion problems."

He added: "People think about climate change as this thing that will happen 30 years in the future or 50 years in the future, but if you're living along coastal Alaska, it's here."

That's a sentiment that's not lost on the people of Kivalina, who filed suit in 2008 against two dozen major oil, coal and power companies, seeking damages for global warming. The town argued that the companies have emitted large amounts of greenhouse gases that have driven up temperatures that threaten the village's existence.

Although a U.S. district court dismissed Kivalina's suit, the town has appealed the verdict to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500


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Reprinted from climatewire-10-31_11-11 with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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