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Too Little Ice, Too Much Snow

A landscape image of the Bering Sea coast near Nome, showing open water and scattered icebergs.

Western Alaska temperatures have been trending higher, coastal sea ice cover is far below normal, and storm after storm has brought one of the greatest snow accumulations in Nome history.

Of all these trends, the lack of sea ice cover is likely the most alarming and disruptive for Western Alaska residents. Many traditional subsistence activities, like wintertime crabbing and marine mammal hunting, depend on a significant layer of sea ice. Traditionally, a mile or more of thick ocean ice extends from shore. In modern times, the ice is typically strong enough to accommodate pickup trucks and snowmachines using the ice as a wintertime highway.

This year, however, sea ice formation has been greatly diminished, made worse by a series of storms that eroded the existing ice. One regional climatologist reported that, between January 25 and March 2, off the coast of Western Alaska, a patch of sea ice the size of the state of Montana melted or dissipated into open water — during a time of year when the ice is typically thickening, not breaking and shrinking.

Solid shore ice provides a buffer against storm surges. The absence of sea ice in recent years has allowed debris to blow onto shore and elevates the risk of flooding and erosion. Thin or patchy ice can make travel dangerous, since snowmachine riders may fall through the ice or become stranded on an iceberg.

The lack of sea ice affected this year’s Iditarod, too, forcing an overland reroute of the trail to avoid the now-open-water shortcut across the Norton Bay.

Daytime along a snowy street in rural Alaska
Snow covered Nome’s streets and countryside last month — and made for slower running on parts of the Iditarod trail. Photo: David Dodman; used with permission.

Meanwhile, the 2018-19 winter is in Nome’s top 3 snowiest on record.

Throughout each day, KNOM broadcasts information on sea ice cover, developing weather events, and marine and regional forecasts. Details on shifts in weather patterns, like this winter’s sea ice and snow abnormalities, are also an ongoing focus of KNOM News.

Image at top: Scattered coastal sea ice along the shore of Nome last month (a sight more typical of May than of March). Photo: David Dodman, used with permission.

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