10-15 Foot Waves Break Seawall at Barrow, Alaska

This is not something that is normal for typically ice-choked Barrow, Alaska. Today, 25 to 35 mile per hour winds and fetch-driven, 10-15 foot high waves are breaking through coastal barriers and flooding the streets and homes of a town that is used to far more placid seas.

Barrow Flooding

(Recently, Barrow city officials had a barrier of sand erected to protect structures from the newly ice liberated waters of the Beaufort Sea. Today, a strong coastal low pressure system’s surf smashed that barrier, flooded the coastal road, broke a channel through to an inland lake, and swamped numerous structures. Image source: Barrow Sea Ice Webcam.)

*    *    *    *    *

There’s been quite a lot of potential storm energy building in the Beaufort Sea this season. Nearby waters in the Chukchi have ranged between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius above average. Warmth, moisture and low pressure systems have flooded in from the Pacific off the back side of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge to the south. It was a pool of warmth and heat just waiting for a trigger.

As August swung toward September, the near polar regions began to cool even as the Summer sun retreated. Temperature differentials between ice free sections of the Chukchi and Beaufort and remaining ice covered regions in the Central Arctic Basin hit new extremes. And, yesterday, a strong low pressure system began to develop off the Northern Alaskan coast (see video of yesterday’s building surf here).

image

(Fifteen foot waves north and west of Barrow, Alaska as detected by Earth Nullschool at 2:05 PM EST on August 27th. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

In response, Alaska weather forecasters yesterday issued a High Surf Advisory. They probably should have issued a Coastal Flood Warning instead. For by today, the low had intensified to a 985 mb system. It has wrapped its left side in 35-45 mph winds and 10-15 foot seas. Seas that are now ripping large holes through coastal barriers erected to protect Barrow from a newly ice-liberated and storm-tossed Arctic Ocean.

High waves and surging seas are expected to persist, and possibly intensify, over the next 12-24 hours for Barrow. So currently observed coastal flooding may continue to worsen through tonight and tomorrow.

Coastlines Newly Vulnerable to Open Water Storms

The Northern Alaskan Coastlines, as with many Arctic shores, are used to typically placid or ice-locked waters. In the past, when sea ice dominated the Arctic Ocean during Summer, there were few open stretches of water available for a storm to generate fetch. Now, vast regions of Arctic Ocean remain open for long periods during July, August and September. In addition, with high amplitude waves in the Jet Stream delivering so much heat and moisture from more southerly regions, the late Summer and early Fall Arctic is increasingly primed for storms.

The result is strong storms running through open waters and generating powerful surf. Surf that is aimed at gently sloping beaches and low elevation coastlines with few natural barriers to protect against waves and storm surge. It’s a new vulnerability that today, for Barrow, resulted in a storm riled and ice free Arctic Ocean surging into streets, roadways and homes. Another climate change related situation that is new — if not at all normal.

Links:

Barrow Sea Ice Webcam

Earth Nullschool

High Surf Advisory For Barrow Alaska

Hat tip to Ryan in New England

Hat tip to Griffin

Hat tip to Timothy Chase (fetch discussion)

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54 Comments

  1. It is one of perhaps many “new normals” to follow.

    Reply
  2. Would this be a case of less ice equals more fetch?

    Reply
    • Exactly. 985 mb storm is driving 14 foot waves and 40 mph winds in the offshore region. 25 to 35 mph winds and 11 foot waves in the near shore environment. It’s about equivalent to a typical nor-easter seen off the US East Coast. But the coastline at Barrow is not accustomed to such storms. So the impacts would be greater.

      Reply
    • Image updated. It’s a real mess…

      Reply
    • 37 mph sustained winds at Barrow station now. That’s basically tropical storm force.

      Reply
      • Looks like the “sea wall” they built to protect the town isn’t fairing too well. They probably didn’t experience these conditions too often when the wall was built.

        Reply
  3. climatehawk1

     /  August 27, 2015

    Tweet scheduled.

    Reply
  4. wow, I’m glad hub’s not there right now…

    Reply
  5. Andy in SD

     /  August 27, 2015

    There is not much solid ground on that coastline to erect any real defense. Traditionally the “solid” can from permafrost and ice, along with a minuscule amount of surface melt in the summer. This provided the equivalent of “rock”.

    With the deep melt into the soil, it turns from a solid to a soil or even a non Newtonian liquid. There is nothing to anchor a defense onto. And there is scant material which qualifies as a defense locally (sand won’t do it, sorry).

    Time to think about moving Barrow inland.

    Reply
    • wili

       /  August 27, 2015

      I was wondering if Barrow might actually be sinking too, for the same reasons you mention here.

      Reply
    • Andy in YKD

       /  August 28, 2015

      We are well inland on the YKD delta and even still we had 36 hours of high gusty winds as the low went by us. Where is the $$$ supposed to come from to pay for moving Barrow and all the other towns and native villages on the coast? Not going to happen imho. To far away from the centers of power.

      Reply
  6. Andy in SD

     /  August 27, 2015

    If / when that hits the broken up conglomeration of floating ice crap which seems to qualify as “Ice Extent”, we may see further degradation.

    Time to watch this locale for a few days, around N81, W141.

    Reply
    • JAXA shows extent plummeted to 3rd lowest on record today. Concentration under the central basin high has bumped Area up a bit to 6th lowest on record for the date. Some air temps in the range of -2 to -5 C would retard melt in a few regions. But many more regions are still above the -2 C threshold.

      GFS and ECMWF model runs show storms running in from the Beaufort, the Barents and the Laptev. Central Arctic cyclone may develop by early September.

      Atsani remnants keep slugging slowly toward the Bering. And we have three tropical cyclones running around the southern edge of the RRR.

      It’s going to be an interesting September.

      Reply
  7. wili

     /  August 27, 2015

    I’m imagining big slabs of ice surfing in on these waves and smashing through structures once safely inland. It doesn’t seem to have happened this time, but surely this is a possibility?

    Reply
    • Possible. But right now it looks like there’s no ice left in this region. I suppose it’s possible the storm could tap into some of the off-shore remnant. Let’s hope not.

      Reply
      • wili

         /  August 27, 2015

        Yes, that could be bad, since some of those chunks are likely to be huge–some of the last remnants of the very old, very thick sea ice that used to exist all along the Canadian Archipelago. Of course, it would take quite a wave indeed to bring a big ice burg very far inland.

        Reply
        • They tend to pile up on shore into berms. If the waves are energetic enough to push the berms into structures, that would be a rather bad impact. Though it’s rough at Barrow, and we see some flooding, it doesn’t yet look like we have that kind of energetic wave action directly striking structures.

  8. redskylite

     /  August 27, 2015

    Very timely warning reported from the Woods Hole Research Center today, on a known Abrupt Climate Change Tipping Point. . . . .

    “The United States must lead a large-scale effort to find the tipping point – at what level of warming will the cycle of warming and permafrost thawing become impossible to stop,” said Dr. Holmes. “The real and imminent threat posed by permafrost thawing must be communicated clearly and broadly to the general public and the policy community.”

    Reply
  9. redskylite

     /  August 27, 2015

    Well said David Balton, deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries at the US State Department, I couldn’t agree more . . . .

    “Ultimately, we need to change the way we live if we’re to keep the planet in the safe zone.”

    This has to sink in to people and governments everywhere – we must change, we must get our carbon balance right again.. if we value our creation/evolution . .

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/27/ocean-climate-change-more-attention-us

    Reply
  10. redskylite

     /  August 27, 2015

    At last more and more institutions are realizing that the predicted changes are really happening now … lets hope it spurs governments and business into action . .

    “This is where we expect to see more extreme weather such as floods and droughts in the future, and what we are gradually starting to see in the present,” said Frank Raes, the head of the climate change unit at the EU’s Joint Research Centre which commissioned the report.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/27/european-extreme-weather-belt-linked-to-worst-drought-since-2003

    Reply
    • Andy in YKD

       /  August 28, 2015

      Meaningful change come from the people, then when the way forward is clear the governments will safely lead from behind.

      Reply
  11. Another couple of decades, or so, and they’ll be surfing in Barrow!

    Reply
  12. Robert, a serious development at Barrow.
    Will send link to KBOO but think subject and your voice makes for good breaking news on radio.
    I will suggest an interview is in order — PDX/Shell/icebreaker protest, etc.
    If you connect with a phone number I will forward.
    All is best ASAP to edit audio by 4 pm for 5 pm Newscast.
    If it happens, likely News Director will call to record chat.
    I can be contacted via FB, Twit, dtlange2, or email, or…
    Am sending RS link to KBOO first.
    DT

    Reply
  13. – File under: OPERATIONAL TERMS WE WILL HEAR MORE OF WITH CC: HORDES – DEPRIVED – HUDDLED

    ‘Hordes of ice-deprived walruses are once again huddled along the Alaskan coast’
    Only days before President Obama travels to the Alaskan Arctic on Monday to focus attention on climate change, one of the effects of global warming is again apparent: Hordes of walruses are scrambling onto the Alaskan shoreline, because the Chukchi Sea ice floes where they would normally have rested have melted.

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed to the Post Wednesday evening that a mass of walruses had “hauled out,” or gathered on shore, near the remote community of Point Lay.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/08/27/ice-deprived-walruses-are-again-huddled-on-the-alaskan-coast/

    Reply
  14. Apneaman

     /  August 27, 2015

    Reply
  15. We have unleashed a monster and it’s target is life as we know it… Hope to hear you again on Radio Ecoshock… Alex feels it’s time.

    Reply
  16. – Wave fetch is dictated by wind, depth and distance until shallow water is encountered when the wave breaks. The lower part of the wave abruptly stops while the top half keeps moving forward. Long distance over deep water makes for big waves.

    ‘ Banzai Pipeline in Oahu, Hawaii is a surf spot that serves up some of the largest and deadliest waves in the world. If you can hold your own above its razor sharp reef, the surfing community will respect you forever.’

    – These are basically fetch driven waves stopped by a shallow reef on a north facing shore.

    Reply
  17. Griffin

     /  August 27, 2015

    Thank you for the hat tip Robert. I am humbled to have contributed to this great blog in some way. I hope that by you telling their story from afar, the plight of those who are truly on the front line of a massively changing climate is relayed to many. You do great work Robert. Thank you for what you do.

    Reply
  18. – Refugees — Body Counts — Terrible.

    ‘Truck of corpses, new shipwreck intensify Europe’s migrant crisis’

    As many as 50 corpses were found in a parked truck in Austria on Thursday, and another migrant boat sank off Libya, deepening a crisis that is overwhelming Europe and throwing up new tragedies by the day.

    The abandoned refrigerated truck was found by an Austrian motorway patrol near the Hungarian border, with fluids from the decomposing bodies seeping from its back door.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/08/27/us-europe-grants-eu-austria-idUSKCN0QW19H20150827

    Reply
  19. Dan B

     /  August 28, 2015

    All athletics: Football, Soccer, cross country, etc. (golf??) have been moved indoors in eastern Washington and Idaho due to smoke. Spokane had worse air pollution than Beijing’s worst a couple days ago.

    Fortunately remnants of weather from Hawaii (Danny?) are moving into the state tonight. There is concern that this could bring lightning to the east slope (dry side) of the Cascades and to the eastern half of the state. In western Washington approximately 3% of plants – trees, shrubs, and herbs – are dying. A single spark could turn them into torches.

    I hope this region gets a break from this drought next year but it’s looking unlikely. It seems as though the jet stream’s crazy pattern is the new normal. Our governor understands this and talks about it, including today’s visit to the Okanogan complex. Unfortunately our state Senate is controlled by Republicans, mostly from the areas suffering from the fires.

    Reply
  20. NevenA

     /  August 28, 2015

    Thanks for this, Robert. I’m linking to it in my latest blog post: Arm’s race (and a storm)

    Reply
  21. Syd Bridges

     /  August 31, 2015

    From what little I jnow of the northern coast of Alaska, I wonder whether much of the shoreline is silt, dunes, or windblown loess. If no longer consolidated by ice and facing long fetch breakers, I would expect very rapid erosion. Perhaps Mike Huckabee could build a $5 million house there and the taxpayers could insure it. After all, nothing bad could happen to it.

    Reply

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