With a huge storm battering Alaska’s northwest coast, officials are concerned for the well-being of residents of Nome and in particular the Native Alaskans living in 18 nearby villages.
The storm is expected to be the worst since one in 1974, when the sea surged 13 feet above the high-tide mark. In the 2011 sequel, estimates of potential surge range from 7 to 10 feet—a problem for many small coastal villages that are less than 10 feet above sea level.
A report in the Anchorage Daily News described “life-threatening surf, wind and snow clobbering villages along the Bering and Chukchi sea coasts.” Jeff Osiensky of the National Weather Service observed that “These things get named hurricanes down south and get a category. It’s that magnitude.” Indeed, warnings from the same National Weather Service have been simple and fearsome:
* SNOW…10 TO 18 INCHES. HEAVIEST AMOUNTS WILL BE ON SOUTH FACING SLOPES OF THE HILLS
* VISIBILITY…NEAR ZERO IN BLIZZARD CONDITIONS.
* WIND…SOUTHEAST 50 MPH WITH GUSTS TO 70 MPH
Another statement from the NWS, cited by the Anchorage Daily News, described an “extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm of an epic magnitude rarely experienced.”
An Associated Press report released mid-day on Wednesday said that 89-mph winds had been recorded at Wales, at the western tip of the Seward Peninsula, and that 61-mph winds had been recorded in Nome.
Native villages in low-lying areas are vulnerable to flooding, but there are other issues as well. A New York Times story looked at the circumstances of Point Hope as described by Mayor Steve Oomittuk, who “noted that Point Hope, like many native villages that are not on a road system, relies on airplanes to bring supplies and to transport people in and out of town. No planes arrived on Tuesday because of increasing winds and none were expected on Wednesday.”
The Times report also brought up Kivalina, a village that has become increasingly damage-prone from storm surges due to decline in sea ice. According to census data, Point Hope is 87% Native American, and Kivalina is 96%. The population of Nome itself is more than half Native.
Scientists point to climate change as a factor in the vulnerability of villages like Kivalina. A report in the Christian Science Monitor described shore-fast ice as a “first line of defense” against a large storm. “This year [the ice] hasn’t developed quite as extensively as it normally does,” Scott Berg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service forecast office in Fairbanks, told the Monitor. In a storm such as this one, the spotty ice presents another danger: The storm can pick up sheets of it and carry them inland, wreaking havoc on houses and other structures.
Storms such as this one and the one in 1974, the Monitor explained, are created by “the stark contrast between warm, moist ocean air and its frosty polar counterpart.”