An extremely powerful storm slammed into Alaska’s western coastline over the weekend resulting in extensive damage from record-level flooding. Warming oceans as a result of climate change contributed to the storm’s severity.
An ex-tropical storm, formed out of remnants of Pacific Typhoon Merbok, rapidly traveled across the Bering Sea before reaching coastal Alaska on Friday.
The storm caused widespread flooding, power outages and damage to buildings, roads and other infrastructure. Damage reports include many communities along more than 1,600 km of coastline, including Hooper Bay, Nome, Unalakleet, and Shaktoolik in Western Alaska.
In Nome, a town of 4000 people, water levels rose to 3-4 meters above normal and flooding was observed as far as 100 km inland from the coast, including the community of Bethel.
The Nome-Council road, a vital 100 km highway connecting the two communities along the shore of the Bering Sea sustained major damage with large sections of the road flooded or completely destroyed.
A number of communities along Western Alaska remain without power and airport runways, a vital line of transportation across many communities which do not have road connections, will have to be inspected or repaired before aid and assistance can arrive.
Worst storm in 50 years
According to meteorologists the remnants of Typhoon Merbok - the Pacific equivalent of an Atlantic hurricane - was the worst September storm to hit the state since the 1970s.
“This dangerous storm produced water levels higher than any seen over at least 50 years,” forecasters at the Weather Service in Fairbanks, Alaska, wrote this weekend.
Officials have only begun assessing the full extent of the damage while Alaska’s governor declared emergencies to activate state assistance for the affected communities.
Nome experienced the highest level of storm surge in more than 50 years surpassing previous record-level flooding in 2011 and 1974. Hooper Bay around 400km further south received some of the worst damage with much of the community under several feet of water, according to local officials.
Climate change multiplies the threat
While scientists continue to study the exact role climate change plays in increasing the severity of storms like these, increased sea surface temperature has been found to contribute to greater levels of moisture storms are able to suck up leading to more intense rainfall, flooding, and winds when storms reach land.
A recent study had identified Alaskan coastal communities as highly vulnerable to the impact of weather and climate change impacts.
The loss of sea ice in the region has also rendered communities more vulnerable to coastal erosion and flooding as ocean waves gnaw away at the shoreline which was previously protected by sea ice. In some areas coastlines have eroded by as much as 30 meters a year threatening or damaging infrastructure built in proximity to the ocean.
The 2018 National Climate Change Assessment identified coastal communities as especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. With longer ice-free seasons, melting of permafrost, and rising sea levels enhancing the threat from ocean flooding during storm events. This development has already forced entire communities to relocate to new safer terrain.