The massive Bering Sea storm that has been pummeling Western Alaska for the past two days bears an additional ominous possibility for some villages.
The storm’s force could spur major coastal erosion in villages like Shaktoolik, Kivalina and Shishmaref that, due to geography and climate change, have already been worn down by storms, with less sea ice to buffet the waves in recent years.
But people in Shaktoolik and Kivalina said Wednesday that, so far at least, humble slush has helped to quiet the destructive force of this storm.
Kivalina, located on an 8-mile barrier island on the Chukchi Sea 120 miles above the Arctic Circle, has suffered severe erosion and has long debated over a planned relocation.
In 2009, the Army Corps of Engineers finished work on a 14-foot sea wall meant to protect Kivalina in winter storms. This storm was its first major test.
“(The sea wall) is holding up pretty good,” said city administrator Janet Mitchell. “We have slush forming in front of it so that’s a natural protection.”
The storm surge of 6 to 8 foot waves, as an update on the City of Kivalina’s website noted, have been tamped down by the slush.
“It’s an additional protection for the island,” said Mitchell.
Favorable winds had also helped to spare Kivalina from more serious damage. But the southeasterly winds were forecast to shift southwesterly on Wednesday.
And the rock revetment wall doesn’t cover the entire island.
“The mayor told me there may be some erosion on the areas of the island not protected by the rock,” said Colleen Swan, a Kivalina city councilmember. “It only goes from the south side of the island toward the middle, maybe toward the halfway point.”
Meanwhile, Kivalina residents have had parts of tin roofs ripped by winds and some have lost heat in their homes, Mitchell said.
South in Shaktoolik, which is located 125 miles east of Nome on the shore of Norton Sound, a natural barrier has helped stave off feared erosion.
Eugene Asicksik, the mayor of Shaktoolik, said Wednesday that driftwood and slush had this far acted to dampen the force of the waves. But a surge could change that.
“We are not seeing much erosion yet,” he said. “But it could occur maybe on the second wave this afternoon or this evening.”
That was good news, said Asicksik.
But it was also far from the answer to the erosion problems that threaten village's longterm existence.
“There’s isn’t anywhere high to go in Shaktoolik,” he said. “If we try and evacuate we’d be evacuating into the storm.”Shaktoolik, the mayor noted, is still flat and located directly on the turbulent ocean.