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November 7th, 2001

Science team studying environmental problems on Alaska’s North Slope

A science team led by the University of Colorado at Boulder is conducting extensive research on Alaska's North Slope to better understand, support and enhance local decision-making processes in the face of climate variability and potential environmental disasters.

The primary goal is to help local peoples identify common interests by exchanging information and knowledge about natural and human-caused climate change, said CU-Boulder's Amanda Lynch. Climate variability includes changes in average temperatures, the extent of sea ice and the level of the permafrost over years and decades, said Lynch, an atmospheric scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

The estimated 8,000 people on Alaska's North Slope, which encompasses roughly 89,000 square miles, are about 70 percent Inupiat American Indians.

"The fall storms are the most severe," said Lynch. "But when the ice is out in the summer, the wind whips up the waves, making flooding and erosion much worse." The science team was awarded a three-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help mitigate North Slope environmental problems.

"The idea behind this research project was to find out what the people on the North Slope of Alaska were environmentally vulnerable to, and how we could help," said Lynch. The primary problem, according to residents, was extreme storms in the summer and fall.

The researchers are creating a storm damage handbook using computer modeling, which indicates where to place sandbags during severe storms and the optimum places to build sea walls to mitigate damage. "We are trying to tailor it to their specific problems," Lynch said.

"It also includes extreme events such as storm surges, flooding events and high wind events--when they happen, how often they happen, and how severe they are," she said.

CIRES is a joint institute of CU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other CU-Boulder study participants include political science Professor Ron Brunner; atmospheric science Professor Judy Curry and aerospace engineering Professor Jim Maslanik, a remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems specialist. James Syvitski, director of CU's Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research, leads the coastal erosion team.  Also involved in the study are Linda Mearns, a climatologist at the Environmental and Societal Impacts Division at Boulder's National Center for Atmospheric Research; Anne Jensen, an anthropologist at the Ukpeavik Inupiat Corp. in Barrow; and Glenn Sheehan, president of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.

In August 2001, seven project researchers went to Barrow, Alaska to meet with public officials, tribal elders and local residents and discuss the effects of big storms on the community. The particular focus was the storm of August 10, 2000.

The storm originated over northern Siberia and tracked east over the Chukchi Sea toward Barrow, Alaska. National Weather Service station director Donovan Price reported winds peaking at 64 mph between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. NOAA instruments in the area recorded wind gusts up to 75 mph that day.

"When that storm came up, it caught the Weather Service by surprise in terms of how strong it was going to be," said Price. "We were reacting after the fact, and it was a lot worse than we thought."

The winds, the strongest ever recorded in the region, added waves to the storm surge, causing flooding and erosion of the coastline. "I just got my cabin moved when we got that big storm, and I saw 40 feet of land disappear in one night. It took off the land where my cabin sat," said Mike Aamodt, a North Slope Borough Assembly member.

Increasing amounts of open water in the Arctic seas combined with rising sea level and the coastal geography contributes to increased harshness of weather events, said Lynch. In the August 10 storm, the ice edge was only about 10 miles to 20 miles offshore north of Barrow.

But a bay of open water extended approximately 60 miles north-northeast of Barrow, and much of the near-shore pack consisted of relatively low-concentration ice, she said.

The impacts of these storms in the context of climate changes, coastal geography and further development along the coastline, may include more damage to buildings, roads, airfields, boats, utilities and supplies of food and gasoline, said Lynch.

Other impacts may include harm to animals and their land or sea habitats if pollutants are released from a storage depot, sewage lagoon or landfill. The impacts of more climate variability might include greater risks to human life, Lynch said.