A storm of historic intensity continues to pound the west coast of Alaska today. Twice the size of Texas, the storm is as deep as a category 3 hurricane. The National Weather Service is calling it a “life-threatening epic storm” due to its dangerous combination of towering waves (observed at 40 feet in the Bering Sea), winds over 100 mph, storm surge flooding, and blinding snow.
The storm’s central pressure bottomed out at 943 mb this morning, comparable to the minimum pressure (942 mb) of hurricane Irene, which caused billions in damage along the East Coast in late August. From this point forward, the storm - essentially a snow hurricane (or snowicane) - is forecast to slowly weaken, but will continue battering the region into tonight.
In Nome, an area bearing the brunt of the storm, CNN has received reports of wind damage via Twitter:
....postings reported structural damage ... including the roof blown off a building. Landline phones were down, according to a Twitter post.
NWS broadcast meteorologist Dave Snider, tweeted a report of “windows being blown out, power lines sparking”.
Video from Carol Seppilu in Nome, Alaska posted to Facebook. Taken at 8 p.m. Alaska time last night before the peak of the storm
Overnight sustained winds reached 45 mph in Nome with gusts to 61 mph.
Incredibly, at 11:55 a.m. Tin City, Alaska (7:55 a.m. local time) gusted to 109 mph (95 knots). Here are some other wind gusts reports from NOAA’s Hydrometeorological Prediction Center:
CAPE LISBURNE(AWOS) 75
KOTZEBUE/RALPH WIEN (ASOS) 73
KIVALINA ARPT 71
POINT HOPE (AWOS) 69
The strong onshore winds are piling up the water along the coast. Severe coastal flooding is expected/ongoing with tides 8 to 10 feet above normal and 15 to 20 foot waves. The winds may also push ice in Norton Bay onshore.
In Nome, tides rose to 7 feet above normal and CNN reports water has moved up to the base of some buildings.
NWS cautions that blizzard conditions will make it difficult to be outside should evacuation from low lying flooded areas be necessary. Visibility dropped below 1/4” mile in heavy snow and wind in Nome overnight.
As for snow, NOAA’s HPC reports Nome had received about 5” through 12 a.m. local time (or 4 a.m. EST) with total accumulations of 10 to 18 inches possible.
Commentators have remarked the storm is unusual for both its track and intensity. EarthSky weather blogger Matt Daniel remarked “The storm is pushing further north than what many low-pressure systems typically do this time of year.” At Climate Central, Andrew Freedman noted the storm passed through an area of unusually high sea surface temperatures.
“This may help explain why the storm is turning from an ordinary Bering Sea disturbance into a ‘superstorm’,” he wrote.
There is concern that the impacts of this storm may be especially bad in coastal villages, because of the loss of sea ice in recent decades. Climate Central’s Freedman explains:
...the presence of sea ice can help dampen the waves and storm surge that come with an event like this, which limits the damage to coastal communities. However, as sea ice has decreased in the spring and taken longer to re-form in the fall, this natural protection has diminished, exposing these villages to increased battering.
Wunderground’s Jeff Masters indicates the beating some of these coastal villages has taken from other recent storms has had serious implications:
Recent coastal destruction has already forced residents of the Alaskan town of Shishmaref to vote to abandon their village. More than half the residents of the nearby village of Kivalina (population 400) were forced to evacuate in September 2007, when 25 - 40 mph winds drove a four foot storm surge into the town. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a $16 million sea wall and shore fortifications in 2009 to protect the town, and Kivalina is trusting these protections during today’s storm; no evacuations occurred.
And Masters notes greenhouse gas induced climate change may worsen the situation in future decades:
... up to twelve additional intense Northern Hemisphere cold-season extratropical storms per year are expected by the end of the century if we continue to follow our current path of emissions of greenhouse gases. These stronger storms will bringer higher winds and higher storm surges to coastal areas of Alaska and the Arctic over the remainder of the 21st century, resulting in increased erosion and flooding of low-lying areas. Contributing to the erosion will be sea level rise.
Dave Snider, a broadcast meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Anchorage, offers some important perspective on the vulnerability of the population affected:
Keep in mind, that the majority of Western Alaska isn’t well off. Many villages exist through subsistence. And some villages don’t have plumbing. It’s a whole different world outside of Anchorage.
This “blizzicane” will likely rival the November 11-12, 1974 storm as the strongest on record for the region.