Here come the Super Storms

  • 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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Board of Diablo Trust is seeking applications for full-time Program Manager with duties of overseeing the coordination and administration of the Diablo Trusts ongoing...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • SECLUDED TWO-STORY CUSTOM LOG HOME
    in 16-acre pinion pine forest with year-round stream, mountain views, wildlife. Garage, root cellar, wood shop, one-room cabin, RV shed, pasture, garden. [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL, CUSTOM RASTRA BLOCK ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME
    Mature, six-acre Ponderosa forest, open pasture. Spectacular Sangre de Cristo mountain & valley views. Well maintained, paved county road, easy drive to world-class skiing &...
  • OJO CALIENTE RIVERSIDE SECLUSION
    Private, 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River between the confluence of the Chama & Rio Grande Rivers. Close to hiking,...
  • CLASSIC NEW MEXICO MOUNTAIN VIEWS
    of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 3.19 acre lot to build on to escape the crush of city/town life. Short distance to trails, skiing, fishing,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • ASSOCIATE OF PROGRAMS
    The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...