Alaska’s Protective Sea Ice Wall Is Crumbling because of the Climate Crisis

Alaska’s Protective Sea Ice Wall Is Crumbling because of the Climate Crisis

This is Scientific American‘s 60 Second Science. I’m Emily Schwing.

Emily Schwing A huge storm hit Alaska’s western coast in September. It brought 17 miles of water inland, from the Bering Sea to the Cup’ik village at Chevak.

[Sounds of kids playing]

Davis Stone: The storm was insane.

Schwing: What was so crazy about it?

Stone: It flooded down there like the sea…

Sean Napoleon It was like an ocean!

Stone: Some people were able to use their powers and had to stay at the school for three nights.

Schwing: This community is home to just over 900 people. It is located on a high bank overlooking the Ninglikfak River. Elder John Pingayak said that the storm shaken his resolve.

John Pingayak: Three days of turmoil followed by realization of how dangerous our situation was for me. [is] Here in western Alaska. It is vulnerable to very high winds and water surges.

Schwing: The storm’s impact, also called MerbokFor thousands of rural Alaskans, flooding is a real threat. Numerous villages were affected by flooding. People lost power, which caused their chest freezers to freeze. People had spent their summers stocking up for subsistence food, and the power outages caused them to lose months of food.

This area of the state has a precarious food security. In addition to the defrosted freezers almost all of the 90 boats that people used to fish and hunt for their main food sources in Chevak were destroyed or damaged. Pingayak said that the losses are terrible.

Pingayak: It is our survival. Subsistence is mine if I’m Cupik. That’s me. That’s me. I go out fishing. My family is the one that goes out and hunts for me. We do it for our survival and a livelihood.

Clinton Slats It filled up with water when the flood arrived, then it floated over and sank right on the river channel.

Schwing: Clinton Slats was present at Chevak’s community room days after the storm to inform his losses to two employees whom Chevak’s tribal council had hired for reports on the damage. He was unsure if he would be able retrieve his boat from below the Ninglikfak River.

Slats: It’s difficult to express how much it affects us. I don’t have the means to hunt and gather with the rest of the season.

Schwing: The storm did more than just cause damage to boats and motors. Nearly a dozen fishing sheds, which housed all kinds of gear including rifles, nets, gas cans, rain gear, and other gear, were destroyed. Some of them had disappeared completely from the riverbank.

In Alaska, summer camps for fish and hunting were also destroyed. The storm reached Alaska before the ground was frozen so coastal erosion was severe.

Rick Thoman It’s easier to erode material without any ice to stabilize it, than it is with ice.

Schwing: That’s Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Thoman: The warming oceans help to prolong the time it takes for freeze up to occur. This trend is certain to continue into the future.

Schwing: He said that the conditions in the south Pacific this year were ideal for Merbok to develop.

Thoman: The waters in this part of the subtropical Pacific have never been warm enough to support typhoon formation. However, this year, much of the subtropical Pacific east from Japan is warmer than usual. Some areas are the hottest ever recorded.

Schwing: This storm was rare. This storm was the first of its kind in Alaska in 50 years. Numerous rural communities suffered infrastructure damage and flooding. Thoman is one of many scientists who believe that the storm, which originated in the northwestern Pacific as a tropical typhoon, is a sign of what climate change will bring to the northernmost U.S. states in the coming years.

Thoman: We know that the main contributor to the increased impacts isn’t that there are more hurricanes, but that storms are coming when there’s no sea-ice.

Schwing: As the coldest months of winter descend on Alaska, there is currently no significant shore-fast ice along Alaska’s Bering Sea coast nor further north along the shoreline the southern Chukchi Sea. This phenomenon has become a common occurrence in recent years.

Thoman: Sea ice would have served as protection, a buffer, or a wave break in the 20th century. The impacts have increased since that time.

Schwing: Merbok was a powerful typhoon that developed after it reached Alaska. It grew into something meteorologists don’t even know what to call it. It was sometimes called the “remnants of a typhoon”. Thoman called it an “ex-typhoon,” but that doesn’t do justice to its power and immensity. It had already tripled in size by the time it reached Alaska.

Thoman: There is no evidence that these storms are intensifying over the long-term. However, the environment they are working in, which is warmer and less frozen, is really what I believe is the driver of these impacts.

Schwing: Residents of dozens west Alaskan communities continue to repair their homes and outbuildings, and to apply for disaster aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state government, and other organizations. Merbok exposed their vulnerability and the need for stronger and more resilient infrastructure as these storms become the new norm in the region.

I’m Emily Schwing, 60-Second Science.

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