Alaska’s protective ice wall is collapsing due to climate crisis

This is American scientist‘s 60 Second Science. I am Emily Schwing.

Emily Schwing: In September, a massive storm off the west coast of Alaska caused water to rise 17 miles inland from the Bering Sea to the Cup’ik village of Chevak.

[Sounds of kids playing]

Peter Davis: The storm was crazy.

to balance: What was crazy about that?

Rock: It flooded there like the sea…

Sean Napoleon: It was like an ocean!

Rock: Some powers turned out and some people had to sleep in school for three days.

to balance: Just over 900 people live in this community. It is located on a high bank above the Ninglikfak River. Elder John Pingayak says the storm has shaken his resolve.

John Pingayak: For three days I was devastated as I finally realized how dangerous our situation was [is] here in western Alaska. It is vulnerable to very strong winds and floods.

to balance: The impact of the storm, called Merbok, is very real for thousands of rural residents of western Alaska. Dozens of villages experienced some level of flooding. People lost power, causing chest freezers to defrost. Power cuts destroyed months of subsistence food that people spent their summers storing.

Food security in this part of the state is precarious. And in addition to the defrosted freezers, nearly all of the roughly 90 boats that people use to go fishing and hunting for their main food sources in Chevak have been damaged or destroyed. Pingayak says the losses are devastating.

Pingayak: It is our survival. If I am Cup’ik, the sustenance is mine. It’s me. It’s… subsistence, it’s me because I’m the one going fishing. I am the one who goes out and hunts for my family. And we do it to earn a living and survive.

Clinton slats: When the flood came, it filled with water, then it drifted and sank straight into the riverbed.

to balance: Clinton Slats was in the community hall in Chevak a few days after the storm to report her losses to two employees the village tribal council had hired to do damage reports. He wasn’t sure he could get his boat back from the bottom of the Ninglikfak River.

Slats: It’s hard to put into words how much this affects us. I have no way to go hunting and gathering with the rest of the season now by boat.

to balance: The storm didn’t just destroy boats and engines. Nearly a dozen fishing sheds that contained all manner of gear, from rifles and nets to gas cans and rain gear, were destroyed. Some had completely disappeared from the shore.

Elsewhere in Alaska, summer fishing camps and hunting cabins were destroyed. And because the storm arrived in Alaska before the ground froze, coastal erosion was extreme.

Rick Thomas: And so, of course, it’s much easier to erode material that doesn’t even have ice to help stabilize it even a bit, compared to the same storm, say, now, where things started to freeze.

to balance: This is Rick Thomanclimate scientist at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Thomas: But warming oceans contribute to this longer period before freeze-up begins. And it is still something that is sure to continue in the future.

to balance: He says conditions this year in the South Pacific were ripe for the development of a storm like Merbok.

Thomas: Historically, the waters of this part of the subtropical Pacific are simply not warm enough to support the development of typhoons. But this year, much of the subtropical Pacific east of Japan is much warmer than normal. Some regions are the hottest on record.

to balance: This storm was rare. Alaska hasn’t seen anything like it in 50 years. Dozens of rural communities have seen their infrastructure damaged in addition to the floods. Many scientists, including Thoman, believe the storm, which originated as a typhoon in the Pacific Northwest, is a harbinger of what climate change could bring to the US state. northernmost in the coming years.

Thomas: Certainly, we know that one of the main factors contributing to increased impacts is not that there are more storms, but storms that arrive when there is no sea ice.

to balance: As the coldest winter months descend on Alaska, there is still no significant fast ice along Alaska’s Bering Sea coast or further north along the coastline. south of the Chukchi Sea other than around the mouths of the rivers. This is a phenomenon that has become the norm in recent years.

Thomas: In the 20th century there would have been sea ice to provide protection or act as a buffer or breakwater. And with that gone, the impacts increased.

to balance: After Merbok developed into a powerful typhoon, it tracked north and east towards Alaska. In doing so, it has become something meteorologists don’t even have a word for. Some people called it the “leftovers” of a typhoon. Thoman called it an “ex-typhoon”. but this kind of language does not do justice to the description of its power or its immensity. By the time it hit Alaska, it had tripled in size on its own.

Thomas: Over the long term, there is no tangible evidence of an increase in the intensity of these storms. But the context in which they work — a warmer environment, a less frozen environment — is really, I think, the driver of the impacts.

to balance: Residents of dozens of communities in western Alaska continue to repair damaged homes and outbuildings and seek disaster assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Alaskan government. state and other organizations. What Merbok laid bare was their vulnerability and the dire need for improved and reinforced infrastructure as such storms become the new normal in the region.

For 60-Second Science, I’m Emily Schwing.

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