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Sea ice may briefly choke off marine routes in Alaska's Arctic

Ben Anderson

A mean storm whipping over Western Alaska will cause further havoc when it moves north, choking off Arctic marine routes north of Barrow with sea ice, according to the National Weather Service.

A photo posted to the National Weather Service's Alaska Facebook page said the storm should arrive in the area around Barrow, the northernmost city in the U.S., by Friday or Saturday. Forecasters expect it to push sea ice toward the shore and block access for mariners trying to move between the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. 

Kathleen Cole, sea ice program leader with the National Weather Service, said that such incursions aren't entirely uncommon, but the speed with which the ice will move toward shore could be a concern for ships using the area.

"This happens frequently in the summers up there," Cole said. "This is not unusual. But this is the time when lots of people are trying to get around Point Barrow. Some of those ships can handle ice, and some don’t want to, so we’re trying to get the word out that ice conditions can change quickly."

Sea ice typically moves away from shore, but weather can turn it in the other direction. Eventually, the weather will turn, carrying the ice back out. Cole said that it wasn't entirely clear how long the shoreward wind would persist, but she said it looked like it could last a day.

The National Weather Service outlined the type of ice that ships might see if they attempt to make the crossing above Point Barrow after the weather kicks in:

This sea ice will contain first year ice from 4 to 30 inches thick with some thicker ice and some multi-year ice. Smaller concentrations of ice may move into the area a few hours prior to frontal passage.

Cole said that this summer has seen fairly normal activity when it comes to instances of sea ice approaching shore off Point Barrow.

"Last year the ice went away so quickly that it didn't do it much," she said. "This year we have a little more ice than normal, but it's closer to what a normal summer should be like up there."

Alaska's not alone in the return of sea ice to shore, either. Canada's far northeast is also experiencing a similar problem caused by winds blowing to the south. That ice is being described as "old, hard, and tricky to maneuver through." 

Hopefully that's a little different from what Barrow will experience this weekend.

See the photo with a bit more info, here. A sea ice update should be available by Thursday afternoon, and you can find that at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's sea ice desk, here.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com