SHISHMAREF, Alaska (KTUU) - During last weekend's storm, Shishmaref's landfill road and about 20 feet of north shoreline eroded away, and local climatologists say that the lack of sea ice is the main problem – not the storm.
Shishmaref landfill road erodes due to November storms and a lack of protective sea ice. (Image still courtesy James Baybuck Kakoona)
Video shared with Channel 2 by James Baybuck Kakoona shows waves crashing up against the edge of the eroded concrete and undercutting what's left. Kakoona says he was in the area making sure people didn't drive into it.
In preparation for the storm, Mayor Donna Barr says the Shishmaref Native Corporation had evacuation centers set up at the school and church; however, the centers were never needed.
According to Rick Thoman, climate science and service manager with the National Weather Service Alaska Region, the storm itself was just "run-of-the-mill."
"This particular storm – that's responsible for why all these flood warnings were issued and why there were actually some impacts in the southern Chukchi Sea Coast – is in no sense a strong storm," he says. "It's a very run-of-the-mill November storm for Northwest Alaska."
Instead, Thoman explains that the big difference is that there is virtually no sea ice surrounding the communities, which would normally offer protection from the wind.
"The winds were not excessive," he said Monday. "What the really big impact is that long fetch of winds over the completely open Chukchi Sea... and there's just not the ice that decades ago would have been there to protect communities."
While having less sea ice build-up along coastal communities is not "uncommon" for recent winters, Thoman says this would not be the case pre-1988.
"Utqiaġvik's had multiple Novembers now, in the last 15 years, when there's been open, or pretty much open, water this time of year," he says. "Same farther south – Shishmaref typically is going through much of November without much of any ice cover on the ocean side."
From the human perspective, Thoman says the most immediate threats are damages to infrastructure. But he's also quick to point out that subsistence activities are threatened too.
"So there's the immediate human infrastructure, human society-type impact. And then there's the larger environmental impacts that will of course impact people down the road, and in the short term, too," he explains.
According to Barr, Shishmaref's biggest concern is not having access to the sewage lagoon, following the landfill road's erosion. In the meantime, the community has come up with a very temporary solution.
"Water and sewer laborers are making many trips, with honey bucket bins, to haul [waste] to the beach," she says. "But this will become a problem at high tide."
In addition, Barr says the community also lost many of their important food drying racks.
Despite the losses, the community may gain solace in knowing that Thoman said Monday that "things are mostly done."
"There was some minor flooding at Kotzebue, more significant flooding at Deering, and apparently significant erosion to one of the roads at Shishmaref," said Thoman. "But things are on the way down, now. The low is moving away – high pressure building in."
Barr says she is relieved that Shishmaref's community of 700 people is safe.
"Volunteers are still tired from the weekend," she said. "We were scared and tired – lots of survival instincts in gear – but everyone is okay."