Sep 19, 2022 - Science

Alaska reels from historic storm that caused widespread flooding

Photo of house stuck under Snake River bridge in Nome, Alaska.
A submerged house beneath the Snake River bridge in Nome, Alaska. Photo: Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

Western Alaska was reeling Monday from the most intense storm ever recorded in the Bering Sea during the month of September brought hurricane force winds and record high storm surge flooding along the coastline.

Threat level: Officials reported Norton Sound communities were still being affected by power outages, flooding and damages to homes, public buildings and roads, while water and sewage were also affected as the typhoon remnants and headed into the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast Sunday evening.

A tweet of an image of flooding in Kotlik, Alaska.
Photo: NWS Fairbanks/Twitter
  • Because the storm hit in September, there was no nearshore ice to protect communities in the low-lying western coast from the full wrath of high waves and storm surge flooding.
  • Social media images showed entire communities inundated, and in one case, a house stuck under a bridge after it floated downriver in Nome, the endpoint of the Iditarod sled dog race.

What we're watching: While floodwaters were receding, an official with Alaska's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) told the Washington Post the true extent of damage to property and infrastructure along some 1,000 miles of coastline may not be known for days.

  • "Access to these [remote] areas is very difficult," Jeremy Zidek added.

Meanwhile, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy tweeted that, having declared a state disaster on Saturday to activate recovery funds, his administration was preparing to file for federal disaster assistance on Monday.

  • The DHSEM said in a statement that damage assessment would begin on Monday, with Alaska Guard members activated and increasing in number throughout the week.

Our thought bubble: The Alaska storm resulted from a rare combination of events that have a climate change tie. It started with Typhoon Merbok, which formed in an unusual spot for this time of year, thanks to warmer than usual waters in parts of the Pacific.

  • As the storm moved into northern latitudes, it transitioned into an extratropical cyclone, feeding off jet stream energy, except it also swirled over an area of anomalously warm waters again.
  • This added more energy to it. And instead of moving into the Gulf of Alaska, which is typical for this time of year, it surged north, into the Bering Sea. Once there, it became the most intense storm on record in the Bering for September, and one of the strongest ever.

The big picture: The storm surge and strong winds it generated struck some of the most vulnerable villages in all of Alaska to the state's rapidly warming climate.

  • Pounding waves and erosion have already made villages such as Kivalina in need of longer-term plans to potentially relocate. Flooding from this storm caused more damage, knocking out airports on the state's west coast by flooding runways.
  • The flooding in Nome was the worst since a storm hit in November 1974.
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