Amid warm winter, scientists say Alaska sea ice conditions are ‘shockingly bad’

The amount of sea ice off western Alaska is jaw-droppingly low this winter — hurting hunters and coastal communities — thanks to an "abnormal" streak of Pacific Ocean storms and unusually stubborn warmth, experts say.

"The state of sea ice near #Alaska is shockingly bad," Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service in Alaska, wrote Sunday in a Twitter post.

"Hunters can't work in this: communities with real people are threatened," he wrote.

"Every piece of this matters — to Alaska and beyond," by affecting weather patterns elsewhere, tweeted Dave Snider, NWS Alaska meteorologist, also writing on his personal page.

Ice should be hugging the coast near the village of Gambell, perched on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, said Mayor Susan Apassingok, on Tuesday. But ice isn't there.

"Now it comes later and leaves sooner than before, making it harder for our hunters to catch any food," she said.

This spring, without nearby sea ice where walruses rest and give birth, her husband and two teenage sons went hunting in a skiff. They traveled more than 100 miles toward the Alaska mainland, and were gone for two days before they got walrus and returned, she said.


"It makes me worry," she said. "At any moment the weather can change, and the waters can become rougher and more dangerous."

Relatively warm water in the Bering Sea may have contributed to the record-low sea ice in November in the Chukchi Sea to the north, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

The upper ocean layer may have retained a lot of heat that flowed into the Chukchi from the Bering Sea, the center said. That heat needs to escape into the atmosphere before the region can become fully ice covered, the center said Dec. 6.

On Christmas Eve, the extent of sea ice in the Chukchi and Bering seas was at a record low, based on satellite data back to 1978, Thoman tweeted.

The Chukchi Sea should be frozen by now, said meteorologist Jim Brader, also with the weather agency in Alaska, on Tuesday.

But a vast tongue of open water stretched to the north on Christmas, off the northwest Alaska coast, according to the weather service. Meanwhile, the Bering Sea is largely free of ice.

An "abnormally" persistent series of warm storms from the south has plowed into the Bering and Chukchi seas this fall and winter, shredding thin sea ice, said Brader.

Coastal ice skirts much of western Alaska, but the concentration is extremely low in large sections, Thoman said.

With less coastal sea ice to dampen waves, the storms have caused flooding in villages, including in Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, leading to more than $10 million in damage and a state disaster declaration.

The lack of sea ice has contributed to unusually warm coastal temperatures, including at a monitoring station for Utqiagvik. Average temperatures in that northernmost Alaska community were so high this season that a quality-control feature on NOAA computers automatically removed the data, after it appeared unrealistically high, according to The Washington Post.

[Utqiagvik warming so fast, NOAA computers removed the data because it seemed unreal]

A "bizarre" bolt of open water lay off Barrow to the northwest on Christmas Eve, Thoman said.

"We've looked at that in detail, and asked, 'Is that real?' " Thoman said. "Yes, it's real. The pattern will change, we'll get ice in open areas this winter. But it's so late in the season now that we're running out of time for the quality of ice to develop."

Ice in the Chukchi Sea has formed during breaks in the storms, Thoman said. But the newly created ice is thin, and gets blown away or dismantled when the wind and chop returns, Thoman said.

Meanwhile, thick, old sea ice that can survive through the summer no longer moves in to reinforce what's lost, he said.

The remaining coastal sea ice is often too fragile or sparse for hunters to travel on, he said. And drifting chunks of ice present hazards for hunters venturing out in skiffs.

"If you have some ice floating around, and you're in small boats, that may be worse than no ice at all," he said.


Some hope remains for cold-weather advocates in Alaska this winter.

Mary-Beth Schreck, sea ice program leader for the weather agency, said the open water in the Chukchi Sea is expected to soon freeze.

And Thoman said La Niña, an oceanic pattern of cooling occurring for the second straight year, could still reduce temperatures this winter in Southcentral Alaska and other areas of the state.

"The thing about Alaska's winters is they're long, so there's still time," Thoman said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.