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Eroding terrain around Alaska village of Newtok smacked by storm, high water

Jerzy Shedlock
Capt. Christopher Larsen / US Army

Residents of Newtok, a tiny village in Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, where residents support themselves though subsistence, awoke Friday morning to find a higher-than-normal Ninglick River. A subarctic storm that slammed Alaska's western coast around Bristol Bay brought the high water.

The National Weather Service said the nasty weather should back off Friday, though southerly winds are keeping water levels high throughout the Delta, reaching as far inland as Bethel, a regional hub.

Storm warnings were issued up and down the Bristol Bay coast, north of the Alaska Peninsula. Though large, the storm does not appear as powerful as the one that smashed the region almost exactly two years ago.

Tribal leader Stanley Tom said strong winds and snow pounded Newtok. The winds died down Thursday evening, but gusts continued to push moderate rains sideways, he said.

Flooding remained visible Friday morning. “We never used to have floods this late in the season, but it was amazingly high this morning,” Tom said. Flood waters did not reach homes or outbuildings in Newtok, however. The river receded Friday, he said.

Many Alaska communities are fighting the effects of climate change, and erosion is particularly severe in Newtok. Over the years, the Ninglick River has chewed toward the village 70 feet a year, on average, devouring stretches of thawed permafrost one chunk at a time.

Newtok is sinking and the highest point in the village -- the school that sits perched atop 20-foot pilings -- could be underwater by 2017. The village's effort to move to higher ground broke down this summer because of a village political conflict and a freeze on government funds, The Guardian reported.

The immediate danger of the storm has subsided, and “everyone is safe,” Tom said.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms.