The powerful remnants of Typhoon Merbok pounded the west coast of Alaska on September 17, 2022, pushing homes to their foundations and tearing apart protective barriers as water flooded communities.
Storms aren’t unusual here, but Merbok has accumulated on unusually warm waters. His the waves reached 50 feet on the Bering Sea, and its storm surge sent water levels into the communities of close to record levels along with near-hurricane winds.
Merbok also hit during the autumn subsistence harvest season, when the region’s indigenous communities are stocking up on food for the winter. Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanksexplained why the storm was unusual and the impact it is having on the coasts of Alaska.
What is most striking about this storm?
It’s not uncommon for typhoons to hit part of Alaska, typically in the fall, but Merbok was different.
It formed in a part of the Pacific, in the far east of Japan, where historically few typhoons form. The water is typically too cold to sustain a typhoon, but right now we have extremely hot water in the north-central Pacific. Merbok traveled precisely on waters that are the hottest ever recorded dating back to about 100 years ago.
The western Bering Sea, closest to Russia, has been operating above normal sea surface temperature since last winter. The Eastern Bering Sea, part of Alaska, has been normal to slightly cooler than normal since spring. That temperature difference in the Bering Sea helped fuel the storm and was likely part of the reason the storm escalated to the level it arrived at.
When Merbok moved to the Bering Sea, it ended up being by far the strongest storm in early autumn. We have had stronger storms, but they typically occur in October and November.
Did climate change impact the storm?
There is a strong likelihood that Merbok was able to form where it formed due to ocean warming.
With warm ocean water, there is more evaporation in the atmosphere. Because all the atmospheric ingredients came together, Merbok was able to bring that very warm, humid air with it. If the ocean had been at a more typical 1960s temperature, there wouldn’t have been as much humidity in the storm.
How extreme have the floods been compared to past storms?
The most notable feature regarding the impact is the huge damaged area. All the coastal regions north of Bristol Bay, just beyond the Bering Strait, hundreds of miles of coastline, have had some impact.
In Nome, one of the very few places in western Alaska where we have long-term information on ocean level, the ocean was 10.5 feet (3.2 meters) above the low tide line on September 17, 2022. It is the highest in nearly half a century since the historic storm of November 1974.
In Golovin and Newtok, more houses have fallen from their foundations and are no longer habitable.
Shaktoolik has lost his protective berm, which is very bad news. Prior to the construction of the quay, the community’s fresh water supply was easily flooded with salt water. The community is now at greater risk of flooding and even a moderate storm could inundate their freshwater supply. They can rebuild it, but how fast is a matter of time, money and resources.
Another important impact concerns the hunting and fishing camps along the coasts. Due to the region’s subsistence economy, those fields are crucial and costly to rebuild.
There are no roads in these coastal communities and obtaining lumber to rebuild houses and fields is difficult. And we are moving towards the typically stormiest time of the year, which makes recovery more difficult and often the planes cannot land.
Many places have also lost power and cell phone communication. Energy in these remote areas is generated in the community – if it goes out there is no alternative. People are losing power to their freezers, which they are stocking up for the winter. Cities may have a grocery store and if the grocery store cannot open or loses energy, there are no other options.
Winter is coming and the time for repairs is running out. This is also the middle of the hunting season, which in western Alaska is not recreation – it’s how you feed your family. These are almost all predominantly or almost exclusively indigenous communities. Repairs will take time for subsistence hunters, so all of these things come together at once.
Does the lack of sea ice as a buffer make a difference to erosion?
Historically, with storms later in the season, even some sea ice can offer protection to dampen the waves. But there is no ice in the Bering Sea all this time of year. The action of the full wave reaches down to the beach.
As sea ice decreases as global temperatures warm, communities will also suffer more damage from storms over the course of the year.
Are there any lessons from this storm for Alaska?
As bad as this storm has been, and it has been very bad, more will come. This is a stormy part of the world, and state and federal governments need to do a better job of communicating risks and helping communities and tribes ahead of time.
This could mean evacuating vulnerable people. Because if you wait until you’re sure there’s a problem, it’s too late. Most of these communities are isolated.
I’d say this is a classic case of large-scale weather models that show a general idea of risk well in advance, but it takes longer to respond to isolated communities like those in rural Alaska. By 12 September Merbok’s storm trail was clearbut if communities are not notified until a day or two before the storm, there is not enough time to fully prepare.
Rick Thoman is an Alaskan climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This article was republished by The conversation with Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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