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Receding Sea Ice Helps Storm Hammer Alaska's Coast

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Receding Sea Ice Helps Storm Hammer Alaska's Coast

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Receding Sea Ice Helps Storm Hammer Alaska's Coast

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. In a few minutes, we're going to focus on the purposes, pluses and minuses of confidentiality agreements. If you've ever signed one, call and tell us why. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. But first, another story we've been following in the news. One of the strongest storms to hit western Alaska in almost 40 years tore through several coastal communities yesterday, tearing up roofs and leaving many residents without power.

Winds as high as 89 miles an hour were recorded in some places. Flooding is a concern for many villages already soaked by rain. Carven Scott is chief of the environment and scientific division for the National Weather Service, Alaska Region, and joins us now by phone from his office in Anchorage. Nice to have you with us today.

CARVEN SCOTT: Nice to be on today here, Neal.

CONAN: And where's the storm now?

SCOTT: The storm now has actually has moved into the western Laptev Sea, to the north of Siberia, in the vicinity of an island up there called Bennett Island.

CONAN: And at its worst, how bad was it yesterday?

SCOTT: This is actually a - certainly an extreme event, corresponding in terms of its central pressure to Hurricane Irene, which I'm sure those of you in the lower 48 are very familiar with there on the East Coast. It had a - we estimated the central pressure at its maximum point of around 942 millibars.

CONAN: And how unusual is that?

SCOTT: Well, it isn't. What makes this storm particularly unusual was not the fact that the central pressure being between 940 and 950 millibars, but the fact that the storm took a, what we call a meridianal track, meaning a south-to-north track into the northern Bering Sea at this time of year, and that deep of a storm is what made it so unusual.

CONAN: We know of hurricanes with those kinds of winds, but that's coming out of the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean when it's very warm. Those waters don't seem to be all that warm come November.

SCOTT: Yes. And that's one of the misnomers, I think, that we up here in Alaska experience approximately 11 to 14 hurricane-force windstorms associated with deep low-pressure areas like this per year, our storm season, unlike the hurricane storm season is from approximately October 1st till about April 1st. And what, as I said, what made this so unusual is a lot of our hurricane-force storms tended to traverse the Aleutians into the Alaska Peninsula into the northern Gulf of Alaska or will rotate from the West Coast near Vancouver Island up towards southeast Alaska.

And that's where most of our hurricane-force wind events are. And this one because of the speed that it was moving, the direction it was moving, from Japan, coast of Japan, at about 60 nauts at its maximum speed, it created what we call a dynamic fetch, which then was the major - beyond the wind. And the blizzard conditions was the major impact to the northwest coast of the Bering Sea.

CONAN: There's also storm surge in years past. There would have been ice off the coasts of those towns by now.

SCOTT: That's exactly correct, Neal. The - one of the - I guess, what we call the storm of record that we use as a reference was the 1974 storm, and it's close as an analog as we would have. And at that point, the sea ice was well entrenched, both shore-fast and also the pack ice was already starting to develop in the northern Bering, which then helped to mitigate and helped to lay this - obviously lay the seas down and help to mitigate the impacts to the - to Norton Sound. And Norton Sound is most often the most vulnerable area of the coastal area of Alaska for these sort of events.

CONAN: Norton Sound, what towns are we talking about?

SCOTT: Norton - well, the most, I guess, well-known town for most folks in the lower 48 would be Nome. Nome sits right on the Seward Peninsula on Norton Sound. Of course, Nome being the endpoint for the Iditarod Race. But the track of the towns on Norton Sound would be little towns, called Golovin, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Unalakleet, and those are villages there that - literally, they're right at the water's edge and - because that's their livelihood. And they were impacted even in 1974, and also, they were heavily impacted here in - during this particular event.

CONAN: And if we can project into the future with the ice arriving later and later it seems every year, this may become a regular occurrence.

SCOTT: Well, that's one of our fears certainly. And it is - one of the benefits of having the sea ice down beyond, you know, the subsistence hunting, which is folks are dependent up here for the sea ice, that it does. It does act as a mitigating factor for these sort of coastal storms. And it is one of our fears that working with both FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management here in Alaska is that we're looking at how these weather and climate issues do impact infrastructure, and what sorts of plans we need to put in place in order to look to the future as opposed to looking back in how we handle things in the past.

CONAN: Carven Scott, thanks very much for your time.

SCOTT: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Carven Scott is chief of the Environment and Scientific Division for the National Weather Service, Alaska Region, joined us from his office in Anchorage.

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