Fishing boats are heading into Dutch Harbor and cargo ships are veering farther out to sea to avoid a major storm expected to blow across the Bering Sea and slam the far reaches of Western Alaska starting as early as Thursday night.
The National Weather Service is predicting a fierce storm will develop from the remnants of Japan's Typhoon Nuri and bear down on the western edge of the Aleutian Islands with hurricane-force winds. The most severe weather is expected through midday Friday.
While the Aleutians will experience their worst storm of the season, the big wind and waves are expected to taper by the time the weather system reaches mainland Alaska, said meteorologist Dave Percy.
"It is really going to be hitting the western Aleutian zone areas the hardest," Percy said Thursday.
Hurricane-force winds of 75 mph and gusts to 90 mph may hit Shemya, where the U.S. Air Force still has a radar installation and an airstrip for refueling. The Pribilof Islands also could experience winds of 35 to 50 mph Friday if the storm stays on track, according to the forecast. And Adak, in the central Aleutians, could experience gusts Friday of 65 mph.
The Weather Service also is forecasting seas as high as 50 feet high. Warnings have been issued across the region.
Rough conditions approaching the #Bering Sea. Hurricane Force Winds w 50 ft seas. Info: http://t.co/tbng7QlLNZ #akwx pic.twitter.com/BxmcZJ2sO8-- NWS Alaska Region (@NWSAlaska) November 6, 2014
The storm could break the record for the lowest atmospheric pressure recorded in Alaska, but that will likely happen out in the Bering Sea where there's no one to record it, Percy said. The prior record low pressure happened in 1977, in Dutch Harbor.
The U.S. Coast Guard is preparing for the storm and urging mariners to monitor weather service reports and take shelter. It sent an MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter -- its biggest -- normally based at Air Station Kodiak to Cold Bay, where the crew will be on standby. The Coast Guard Cutter Munro had been patrolling near Dutch Harbor and now is taking shelter in an inlet. An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter is parked in a hangar in Dutch Harbor, the Coast Guard said.
"We're monitoring the system daily, and I'm sometimes getting up to hourly updates on it," said Capt. Joseph Deer, who oversees search and rescue operations in Alaska as the chief of incident command.
The forecast indicates it will be "one of the strongest storms that I have personally seen," said Deer, a pilot whose time in Alaska includes eight years in Kodiak. Mariners are taking the warnings seriously and giving the storm a wide berth, he said. Cargo ships on what's called the Great Circle Route are slowing down or moving to the east or the south, he said.
"Our top priority is the safety of life at sea," Deer said.
Alaska Airlines is monitoring the storm, but so far there's been no disruption in flights, spokeswoman Halley Knigge said in an email Thursday afternoon.
The city of Adak, in the central Aleutians, put out a weather alert on its Facebook page warning people to stay away from "areas that may pose a risk of flying debris or flooding." Deteriorated buildings on the abandoned military base "may not fare well," said City Clerk Debra Sharrah.
The weather there Thursday afternoon was "gorgeous," with the sun even peeking out, but earlier in the day it rained, she said.
Residents are gearing up for the storm, she said. She propped chairs against doors of the glass atrium of her fourplex to keep them shut and also bought fuel for her generators.
"I don't want the doors to blow in, because it will probably take the whole atrium," she said. She rents out units to travelers. One visitor with business in Adak is coming despite the storm, but a hunter canceled his trip.
"Who wants to be out there looking for caribou in hurricane-force winds?" Sharrah said.
It's all part of life on the island.
"Last week we had winds that were gusting to 69 and sustained at 45," she said.
Crews on hundreds of vessels in the Bering Sea already are reacting to the coming storm, said Ed Page, a retired Coast Guard officer and executive director of Marine Exchange of Alaska, a Juneau-based vessel tracking and safety organization.
His 13-year-old nonprofit agency monitors vessels equipped with transponders on a big screen, much like air traffic controllers watch planes.
"A fair amount of them are running for cover, are heading toward ports to seek cover," Page said Thursday.
Many of the tracked ships are large cargo vessels traveling between Asia and the West Coast, including San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, he said.
"A lot of ships actually are just changing their normal routes and staying way off shore to avoid the storm," he said.
Shipping companies subscribe to forecasting and routing services that tell them the safest way to go, Page said.
"The nice thing with technology is no one is getting surprised by this," Page said.
His tracking system shows fishing vessels heading toward Dutch Harbor and cargo ships holing up in an area south of the Alaska Peninsula. Others are traveling further from the coast than normal, to avoid the storm, he said.
The storm is expected to stall and weaken over the central Bering Sea, the weather service said.
"By the times it gets to the Southwest coast, it is going to be like any ordinary front that would come in this time of year," Percy said. "It's not going to be particularly impressive. It's not going to be standout." People on the coast can expect winds of 40 to 50 mph , the weather service said.
The storm may bring heavy rain and some snow. There may be minor flooding Sunday and into Monday along the Southwest coast where villages already are struggling with erosion, but it shouldn't be a big problem, Percy said.
"There's going to be some higher surf coming in, but that's about it," he said.