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High winds cause flooding in Barrow, prompt Shell to pause oil drilling

Huge, wind-whipped waves crashed onto the shore at Barrow on Thursday, forcing the closure of a nearby road, the National Weather Service reported. Westerly winds were gusting up to 50 miles an hour, pushing waves up to the top of the beach and causing some erosion, the National Weather Service said.

A National Weather Service employee in Barrow captured still images and video of the high waves and flooding.

The service has issued a coastal flood warning for Barrow until Friday morning, along with a high surf advisory for the western part of the North Slope and a gale warning for much of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Seas up to 14 feet were forecast for Thursday in the Chukchi.

The big surf and flooding, which has covered a road that runs between the ocean and Barrow's lagoon, is "not terribly unusual" at this time of the year, said Ryan Metzger, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fairbanks. Fall is a stormy season, and the timing -- right around the annual minimum sea ice extent -- allows the surf to build and reach shore, he said.

Thursday's high waves and flooding are products of a large storm that's being felt as far as Southcentral Alaska, where high winds are forecast, Metzger said.

"It's a pretty big low-pressure system that's over the Arctic Ocean," he said. The front associated with it dumped a lot of rain -- over an inch in one day in Nome -- and, in the Brooks Range, some snow, prompting a notice from the Alaska Department of Transportation about difficult driving conditions on the Dalton Highway, he said.

The Barrow flooding has had some ripple effects, said Mary Sage, a transportation specialist for the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a tribal government. Ilisagvik College, the local post-secondary institution, is closed because the flooded road is its access route, and some young children are being kept home from local schools, she said.

Barrow residents have come to expect such storms and floods at this time of year, when they "have no protection from the ice," Sage said.

"Every three to four years, the roads are flooded and wash out in several areas," she said. "Which is a shame, because sometimes we lose access to the duck and goose-hunting areas and have to wait for the roads to be repaired."

Out in the Chukchi Sea, the strong wind and waves caused Shell to pause oil drilling efforts because of weather for the first time this summer, said Megan Baldino, a company spokeswoman.

Critical operations, including drilling work on the 400-foot Transocean Polar Pioneer, were "proactively" halted about a day ago, based on forecasts of the storm, she said.

"Safety is paramount," she said.

The flooding in Barrow -- where crew changes occur for the offshore site -- has also impacted operations.

With limited lodging in Barrow, Shell is temporarily relocating up to 100 workers who are currently there.

"A road that's used to transport people to the camp is down to one lane due to high water, and it could become impassable," said Baldino.

Some of those workers will be temporarily flown back to Anchorage and others will be flown to Deadhorse. Essential crew members, such as pilots, will remain in Barrow, she said.

Ships in the company's drilling fleet remain near the Burger drill site, where reports say sustained winds are blowing at about 35 miles an hour and waves are estimated to be about 15 feet high.

"All our assets are riding out the storm," she said. "All the crews are all right, but we've gotten complaints of a little seasickness, which you can imagine."

More flooding and erosion is expected in the future as fall sea ice dwindles.

Waves in the Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering Seas have been getting bigger over the past four decades, a recent Environment Canada-led study found.

In 2012, the year of record-low sea ice extent, scientists from the University of Washington measured 16-foot waves in the Beaufort Sea. The highest sea waves ever recorded in the Arctic, at 19.685 feet, were measured in the Barents Sea off Svalbard in 2010.

Thursday's seas, forecast to reach up to 16 feet, fall far short of those marks. Seas are different from waves; they are measured from waves' crests to the troughs between them, Metzger noted. Seas are a combination of wind-wave height and swell height, according to the National Weather Service.

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