Bearing Down: The Bering Sea Storm Hits Alaska


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Snowmobiles ferried passengers to school shelters this week. Image credit: shalom77

Severe winter storms: first, there was the US East Coast. Now, there’s Alaska.

You’d expect to see snow in Alaska this time of the year. But stir in 89 mph winds, storm surges, and a blizzard so thick that it’s almost impassable, and you end up with what experts are calling the Bering Sea mega storm.

The storm hit Western Alaska hard on Tuesday, November 8th, causing power outages and loss of 911 service in some locations. Roofs and windows were damaged, but the full reckoning of the damage is still to come.

The Bering Sea Storm Rocks Homes: Residents Seek Shelter

As the fierce winds blew through Western Alaskan villages on November 8th and 9th, homes with foundations that sit in the permafrost shuddered. Residents took shelter at local schools, moving through the raging winds on snowmobiles. Schools in Alaska are built on thick pilings that can better withstand the storm.

Erosion a Concern as Storm Surges Are Expected to Pummel the Coast

As of the afternoon of November 9th, the winds started to abate but worries about a storm surge continued. In the face of rising water, the village of Kivalina declared a state of emergency. This village is build on a thin piece of land that faces the ocean, and it is vulnerable to flooding. In Kivalina, the water level is expected to move up to 4 feet beyond the high tide line.

Across Western Alaska, water levels are expected to peak during storm surges on Thursday.

In Alaska, Shore Ice Protects The Land From Storms

Sea ice slows the winds and protects the land. Image Credit: Oskar73

Alaskan residents are no strangers to storms. Winters can be rough, and villages have protected themselves from erosion from winter storms. While many connect storm surges with tropical cyclones, the rough and windy weather associated with Alaska’s winter low pressure systems can push water up onto the shore.

The physics of water, ice and wind have long protected Alaskans from the worst effects of storm surges. Over the winter, shore ice builds up along the land, protecting it from the brunt of the storms.  In past winters, sea ice has extended out from the land, providing a buffer to shield against the worst erosion of the winter storm surges. When the ice buffer is small or the storms come early, the water hits the land instead of accumulated ice, eroding the land and placing villages in danger.

Bering Superstorm in action: Image by the National Weather Service

Open water provides ideal conditions for storm surges. Water peppered with ice is harder to push. In the Bering Sea Storm, winds moved across open water,  pushing it toward the shore. What happens to the coastline as it experiences this week’s pummeling remains to be seen.


Los Angeles Times.  November 9, 2011.  Bering Sea Storm Slams Alaska. Accessed November 9, 2011.
Anchorage Daily News. November 9, 2011. Storm Weakens: Water Surge Still to Come. Accessed November 9, 2011.

Environment 360. June 6, 2011. As Arctic Sea Ice Retreats, Storms Take a Toll on the Land. Accessed November 9, 2011.

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