Open water wreaks havoc at Little Diomede
Last Tuesday, February 20, residents of Little Diomede have seen the impossible. Instead of looking out at a frozen seascape of ice, they witnessed open water and high surf crashing onto the shores and coming up beyond the high water line. Videos that went viral on Facebook showed open water and waves hurling large chunks of ice into the village while bystanders gasped in disbelief as one wave after the other crashed onto the steep shores of the island. This is February 2018 in Little Diomede, latitude 65.7522°N.
According to Kawerak’s tribal coordinator Frances Ozenna, residents observed on Saturday that the tide was raising the sea ice, which began to break off and fragmentize. Ozenna said that the city blew the horn to alert people. They went to the shoreline and pulled their boats up even higher. On Tuesday night the storm began with strong winds that were estimated at 70 mph. Since the National Weather Service has no data collection station at Diomede, official data is not available. However, on Feb. 19, the NWS station in Wales recorded wind gusts of 86 mph.
Frances Ozenna described that the winds started to pick up at around 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday night. The winds came from the south and when the tide rose in the afternoon, the waves came up higher into the village.
The winds whipped up the sea, breaking up the young sea ice, and the surf, mixed with ice chunks and salt spray inflicted damage on the aged power distribution system. Ozenna said one boat with motor was lost, leaving the island with only two remaining hunting boats for subsistence. Sea water, ice and debris was washed into the water treatment building. The gabions that were installed to protect the e-waste facility, where also the fire department stores some items, were destroyed, but the building itself was not. The helipad sustained some damage, but is functional. Ozenna said she and others went to clear the helipad of rocks and ice chunks. The helicopter came in on Friday for the mail run and also delivered Orvilla Ahkinga Jr. who was sent by the state’s division of community and regional affairs to conduct emergency repairs and do some assessments. Ahkinga, who is originally from Little Diomede, said that damage from wind and heavy salt spray was done to transmission lines, transformers and secondary lines. Water damage was done to intermediate fuel tanks, to the pump fuel station and to the water distribution lines and pipes. Ahkinga said that salt water seeped into the fuel tanks through valves and that he cleaned about 25 gallons of salt water out of each of two fuel tanks.
Ozenna cautioned that at this point, the full damage has not been assessed yet. The shoreline is buried in deep snow and ice and once spring comes around, the full damage may be revealed.
Ozenna said this storm comes on top of a two-week emergency that occurred in December, when the community was without power. The company Current River Electric is slated to come to Diomede for an assessment of the aged powerlines, transformers and upgrade of the powerhouse. Not only do Diomeders content with extreme weather conditions, but also aging infrastructure.
Ozenna said that usually by February, ice is formed and solid. Ahkinga remembers that he was preparing the ice runway for fixed-wing planes in years past. Ozenna said storms do occur in October, November and even December, but ice cover forms in January and while it is usually windy in January and February, it usually is not windy enough to break the ice up. This winter, there was only young ice in front of Little Diomede. “Every February we are frozen over,” Ahkinga said. “We’ve seen big storms, but never in February.” Asked if the Elders remember any open water incidents on Little Diomede in February, Ahkinga said no. “My dad is still trying to make sense of it all.”
Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, said that when he saw the photos of open water in Diomede his reaction was: “This is stunningly bad.”
He also said that he saw photos of a completely ice-free sea at Gambell, another stunning occurrence.
As for the open water at Diomede, a combination of factors led to the event. Thoman said that the sea ice was very slow to grow in the Chukchi and Bering Sea this fall to begin with. Sea ice forms when water temperatures fall to 28°F and below. In addition to the warm sea surface temperatures – open water offshore from Gambell measures 30°F as of Tuesday, Feb. 27 — a lot of storms from the south pushed warm air north. Weather patterns from the north or northwest that usually bring in cold air did not occur as frequently as they usually do. So, a combination of warm air and near record water temperatures conspired against solid ice formation. In addition, the multi-year, older ice that used to come down from the Arctic is no longer there. Young ice forming is more susceptible to break and when strong winds churned up the nearby open water surface, the young ice stood no chance.
The ice edge this week is 200 miles north of St. Paul, where the sea temperature is at a balmy 36°F. Open water is northwest of Gambell. Ice cover between Cape Wooley and Teller is not 100 percent but seven to eight tenths of coverage. Sea ice broke off also at Elim, where
Frances Ozenna describes what she sees these days. Instead of a solid cover of white ice, pressure ridges and ice formations, she sees a different sight every day.
“We see every day the ice form differently, it looks differently every day,” Ozenna said. Then she joked that she better get off the phone or else she’d be making things up. Indeed, if the pictures weren’t there to prove open water in February at Little Diomede, one could surmise this was all made up. But it isn’t.