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Erosion is creeping toward Alaska’s coastal radar sites

With coastal sea ice shrinking in the Arctic, the U.S. Air Force is creating new models to better predict erosion threats to Alaska radar sites that have played a critical role in national defense since the Cold War.

Under a $1.1 million contract, the Air Force wants a University of Alaska Anchorage research center to improve estimates for anticipated shoreline loss at two radar sites in northeast Alaska, officials said last week.

The stations— at Oliktok Point near the North Slope oil fields and Barter Island near Canada — are two of 15 long-range radar sites sprinkled across the state, including several along the coast.

The stations were originally built in the 1950s to scan the skies for unwanted Soviet aircraft, long before global warming made headlines, as part of the Distant Early Warning Line system.

The radars themselves, contained within white domes that look like giant golf balls, have been updated to scout for modern jets and bombers entering Alaska's air defense zones.

But over time, the shorelines have been creeping closer to the coastal stations.

Tommie Baker, head of community engagement for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Alaska, said there "are no immediate threats" from erosion to any of the sites.

"We have the same coastal erosion problems you see anywhere in the state, and none of the radar sites are in danger of falling into the ocean," Baker said. "They are totally able to do their job, and are there for their purpose, homeland security and defense."

But the erosion has accelerated, and poses increased risk to some of the Air Force's valuable facilities, including at the Cape Lisburne site in Northwest Alaska that's not part of the study.

The Air Force at that site has partially completed a $42 million, five-year project to rebuild a damaged mile-long seawall built in the early 1950s.

The wall protects the runway, the "lifeline" to hospital care and supplies for the men and operations at the site, said Bob Glascott, manager of the project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Erosion has long occurred at the site, he said. But with sea ice shrinking in recent years, fall storms increasingly hammer unprotected shores with destructive surges, the same issue many coastal communities face.

The original seawall wasn't designed for such battering, he said. Waves have washed thick belts of sand as well as boulders up to 2 feet wide onto the runway, posing risks for aircraft.

The erosion at some radar sites is severe, according to BEM Systems, a New Jersey-based consultant working with UAA's Applied Environmental Research Center on the contract.

In some cases, sections of land have receded hundreds of feet in just a few years, BEM's website says.

The Government Accountability Office warned in 2014 that "thawing permafrost, decreasing sea ice, and rising sea level" had sped up erosion at several Air Force radar sites.

The vanishing shorelines could eventually result in "radar failure" and "diminished functionality" of the radar system, though the network is designed to keep operating if one more sites are lost, the report said.

Each radar site in Alaska is generally valued at about $250 million, including for hardware like runways and buildings, Baker said.

The predictive models being created for the Oliktok and Barter Island sites can potentially be used to better understand the erosion occurring at other radar sites in Alaska such as at Cape Lisburne, Baker said.

Baker said the military wants a better understanding of potential solutions and costs, as well as timelines.

At Oliktok, the Air Force last year removed a landfill threatened by erosion, said Lori Roy, installation management flight chief with the 611th Civil Engineer Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The road to the installation is also a concern.

At the Barter Island site, the agency about a decade ago also removed a threatened landfill.

"It's not that we built these landfills too close to the coast," Baker said. "It's that (the land was) much further out when they were first built."

Baker said the Air Force's old method uses "outdated" models that relied on past erosion rates to make future projections.

Under the two-year contract, the UAA research center will take a broad look at such things as future temperature estimates, the impact of sea ice loss and the effect of thawing permafrost in coastal cliffs, he said.

The models will look out 50 years, the research center's website says. The contract launched in October.

"We're trying to understand where this is going to go, so we can get ahead of this," Roy said.

UAA officials and Ken Duffy, with BEM, would not comment. They referred questions to the Air Force.

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