Here come the Super Storms

by Tim Lydon

Once again, we were all New Yorkers. Watching the heartbreak that continues in Staten Island, parts of Queens and along the pummeled Jersey Shore, our sympathies turned eastward toward the victims of this unusual “Super Storm.” But just how unusual was it?

Sandy’s devastation gives us the opportunity to remember another giant storm that barreled into the Bering coast of western Alaska last year. The two storms are strikingly similar, and both point to a climate destabilized by fossil fuel emissions.

The parallels between Sandy and Alaska’s storm begin with the language used to describe them. On Nov. 8, 2011, in a headline similar to those that would precede Sandy, the Alaska Dispatch newspaper warned, “North Pacific ‘Super Storm’ Bears Down on Western Alaska.” The National Weather Service in Alaska ominously spoke of “a life-threatening storm of a magnitude rarely experienced.” A year later, as Sandy approached the Northeast, the same agency warned of a “historic storm” capable of widespread damage and possible loss of life.

The size of the storms, each stretching over 1,000 miles, awed meteorologists. Their intensity was similarly unique, with the barometric pressure plunging to 943 millibars for Alaska’s storm and 940 for Sandy. The readings, more indicative of a Category Three hurricane, were rare in the Northern latitudes where they occurred.

The storms’ huge size and fierce winds kicked up deadly seas and drove surges that devastated low-lying coastal areas. Along the Bering Coast, waves towered between 30 and 40 feet, similar to the record setting 32-footer that charged across New York Harbor during Sandy’s peak.

In another similarity, both storms were quickly followed by “normally” powerful storms that brought added suffering to an already stricken area.

But you’ve probably never even heard of Alaska’s Super Storm. There’s an obvious reason for that: population. The Bering Coast supports one of the nation’s sparsest populations, with its largest community, Nome, inhabited by just 3,600 people. Point Hope, Kivalina and Savoonga are among a few dozen other settlements, mostly Alaska Native villages with populations in the hundreds.

In Alaska, there were no headline-making evacuations. After all, people can only evacuate so far when there’s no road out of the village and aircraft flights are halted during bad weather (let alone during Super Storms). So, as gusts approaching 100 mph drove blizzard conditions, ripped away roofs and knocked out power, residents hunkered down in schools and community centers, where the wind’s roar nearly drowned out their voices. After a punishing two days, they emerged to find roads and property ruined by wind and coastal flooding. Damages were in the mere millions, compared to Sandy’s billions, only because there was much less infrastructure to damage.

But the cost to individual people was equally painful. And, just as important, the storm’s connection to climate change was just as plain. For instance, the absence of sea ice, which used to limit big waves and storm surges this time of year, fueled the destructiveness of Alaska’s Super Storm. In recent years, the Bering Sea’s rough weather, combined with the rapidly dwindling ice, has caused massive coastal erosion, forcing villages such as Kivalina to plan for the permanent abandonment of their long-held homes. Here, climate change is a daily reality.

Similarly, Sandy was strengthened by warmer-than-usual ocean water, something that is quickly becoming the norm in the Atlantic. And Sandy’s destruction was worsened by sea-level rise. Research shows that sea-level rise is not uniform around the globe, and that ocean currents and other factors are making it more profound in the Northeast. That’s why we saw water pouring into the Ground Zero construction site and flooding New York’s tunnels and subways. Now, city planners in the Northeast are having the same discussions that occurred in Kivalina a few years ago, before they decided that moving the village was inevitable.

Of course, it’s still true that no single weather event can be directly blamed on human-caused climate change. But disappearing sea ice, warming oceans and rising sea levels are observable phenomena driven by the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases.

We can be assured that these are not the last Super Storms. More likely, they’re among the first, and the records they set will be dwarfed by the storms to come. Like the recent fires in the West -- 2012 was another record-breaking year for Western wildfires -- they will be back. That’s what climatologists predict. Meanwhile, our political leaders sidestep even the mention of climate change and mostly dismiss energy conservation. It’s a strange legacy -- along with weird weather -- we’re leaving today’s young people.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He writes in south-central Alaska.

© High Country News