Warming’s peril


Surf’s up!/University of Alaska webcam

The residents of the northernmost city in the United States are cleaning up in the wake of a fall storm that came roaring across a strangely ice-free Arctic Ocean last week to pound their low-lying community.

Sea-side Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, lost a lot of ground to the wind and waves that started hammering it on Thursday and for several days beat away at Alaska’s northern coast with winds gusting 45 mph and “surf of 8 feet or more,” said North Slope Borough spokesman DJ Fauske.

Thanks to employees with the borough’s Public Works Department who armed themselves with heavy equipment and battled around-the-clock to repair dike-like berms to keep the surf out of town, personal-property damage was minimal, but the Borough is estimating the cost of its counter-offensive against the weather and the post-storm repairs at more than $10 million.

Sea ice, which in most years provides protection for the coast this time of year, was 400 to 500 miles to the north when this storm hit. Fauske confessed he found that a little hard to imagine.

As someone who lived in Barrow while young, the now 38-year-old Fauske said it feels strange to look out at the Chukchi Sea to the north and west and see nothing but open water.

So much open water presents a big danger for a community that rises only about 10 feet above sea level. Its elevation is only slightly higher than that of Miami at the opposite end of the country.

Changing world

Given the shrinking Arctic ice pack, Fauske said the community-formerly-known as Barrow now regularly finds itself fighting Mother Nature’s winds and seas to survive. It has, however, finally obtained federal funding to study construction of a breakwater to see if armoring the coast might help.

Berming with sand and gravel has proven to be a temporary and less than foolproof answer.

“High surf, debris, wind and flooding severely eroded (the) protective berms and roads,” and left extensive damage, the borough’s latest post-storm assessment said. As of Tuesday, according to the Borough:

  • More than three miles of the berm pushed up by heavy equipment to protect the city from surf had  been breached or severely eroded.
  • Damage has required the purchase of some 15,000 cubic yards of gravel to make repairs, which are about 80 percent complete.
  • 22 lots in Barrow and the suburb of Browerville remain under water.
  • Two lagoons adjacent to and below a freshwater lake important to local water supplies were flooded nearly to the level of the lake. Borough officials had to plug what are normally outfall culverts to prevent a back flood of saltwater into the lake, but they managed to protect the freshwater supply.
  • Seven historic townsite lots on a small bluff below Apayauk and Stevens Street have been undercut by storm surge wave action and are beginning to collapse. As the permafrost in the now exposed soils that used to support those bluffs thaws, borough officials expect the sea to creep another 10 feet closer to the embattled community.
  • A 600-foot retaining wall built of rock in gabion-baskets has been severely damaged, leaving Egasak Street threatened by the next storm.
  • Two tons of “super sack” barrier between Egasak  and a pump station vital to maintaining an operating sewer system in the community were severely damaged and need to be replaced.
  • Several seaside streets remain closed either because they are flooded or have been severely eroded.
  • More than a half mile of  “the beach road from the Point Barrow Airstrip and Elson Lagoon is completely destroyed, separating the community from an important subsistence area.”

Whaling season

Whaling is the prime subsistence activity in the community, and the fall whaling season had only begun on Sept. 29. It was shut down by the storm, but resumed as soon as the storm subsided and a bowhead was reportedly landed on Monday.

Borough officials said they are still trying to get damage assessments from smaller communities along the coast to the west and south. Wainwright, population, 550; Point Lay, population, 250; and Point Hope, population 675, are all in low-lying locations on the coastal plain and exposed to erosion from wind-driven surf.

From Point Hope north, the treeless coast is dominated by low barrier islands of shifting gravel, beaches of sand and behind them low, tundra bluffs widely underlain by permafrost. All are vulnerable to surf, and the permafrost has been slowly decaying as the Arctic warms.

Though most of Alaska has warmed only slightly since 1977, the Alaska Climate Center notes Barrow as a big exception. Average temperatures have gone up almost 6 degrees in the last 40 years, and the really big change has come in the fall.

Autumn is Barrow is now a somewhat staggering 10.8 degrees warmer than the old norm, according to the Center, It isn’t exactly hot in Barrow. It was foggy and 35 degrees there today with some of the first snow of the year still lingering in patches on the tundra.

But it is a radical change in weather to be three degrees above freezing instead of nearly eight degrees below freezing.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story misrepresented the date for the opening day of whaling season.


2 replies »

  1. Thanks for an interesting article.

    I noticed the diacritic in your tag Utqiaġvik but not in all the places in your article. It might be a good idea to specify Fahrenheit degrees in your temperatures.

    The first day of fall whaling season was 29 September, which was less than a week from your dateline.

    Those are nits, but hopefully helpful.

    Great picture from the webcam. The webcam can be seen at Thanks to University of Alaska, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, Inc. for providing support.

    • thanks, byran. date error has been fixed. bad, bad math. journalistic practice is to assume F temps in this country. that diacritic is a pain in the butt. i haven’t looked to see whether others in the press are putting it in or leaving it out. it’s not a normal key stroke.

      and nits are good.

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