Heavy storms set to hit Northwest Arctic will likely disrupt fragile sea ice

This map shows a storm inbound for the Northwest Arctic, with the color field representing wind speed. (Graphic courtesy of Rick Thoman)

Large snow storms are set to hit Western Alaska this week. While the storms are nothing new for this time of year, they are likely to disrupt sea ice in the region, which is forming at a much slower rate due to an abnormally warm year.

By the end of November in decades past, there was a thick layer of traversable ice in the Chukchi Sea. This year, there’s a lot of open water in its place. But Rick Thoman with the International Arctic Research Center says that sea ice had better conditions to grow this November than in the last few years. 

“We’ve been in a comparatively cold pattern, lots of east and northeast winds,” Thoman said. “And that’s allowed sea ice to grow better than we have had in several of the recent autumns.”

However, large winter storms are set to hit the Chukchi and Northwest Bering Seas this week, and Thoman says that means the streak of good sea ice conditions is coming to an end. 

Thoman says that storms like these are typical for this time of year. While ice is normally strong enough to withstand them, this year’s ice conditions are a little slimmer. 

“The ice, of course, is new, so it’s relatively thin,” Thoman said. “It’s not like spring ice. Much more susceptible to disruption by these storms that there’s nothing new in them per se, but they’re acting on a lot of water instead of, historically, a lot of ice.”

Thoman says that while lower sea ice conditions pose safety and hunting risks, they can also lead to an overall temperature increase for the region. He says that Kotzebue average temperatures have risen by about ten degrees in the last few decades. 

 “That is tied to what we had in the spring, the unprecedented early loss of ice in Kotzebue Sound and the exceptionally warm water temperatures in the Sound over the summer,” Thoman said.

The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning for the Northwest Arctic from Monday night to Wednesday morning, highlighting heavy blowing snow and potential power line damage. Kotzebue is forecast to get 3 to 5 inches of snow, with surrounding villages getting up to 13 inches. 

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Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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