Storms, high winds projected to be more frequent in Western Alaska

Storm surges against Toksook Bay on Oct. 1, 2015. (Photo courtesy Jimmie Lincoln)
Storm surges against Toksook Bay on Oct. 1, 2015. (Photo courtesy Jimmie Lincoln)

Western Alaska, a region already known for its high winds, is projected to get even windier. In communities along rivers or the coast, that could accelerate erosion through stronger waves.

A warming climate is driving the changes, according to research.

“The message that came through pretty consistently, no matter what the criterion was, was that the Western Alaska region was the one where winds are expected to increase,” said John Walsh, chief scientist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In research Walsh published in 2019, he analyzed two climate models that project a 25% to 50% increase in high-wind storms in Western Alaska by the end of the century. He said that other climate models vary in how much they project wind speeds to change, but that they all show a significant increase.

Walsh said that the reason why Western Alaska is getting windier is that it will soon inherit the Aleutian Islands’ storms. In today’s climate, the Aleutian islands are the windiest area in Alaska.

“It’s the boundary zone between the cold climates and the warm climates,” Walsh said. “And the storms tend to feed off that contrast.”

But he said that boundary is on the move.

“As you warm the planet, you’re essentially expanding the tropics and shifting weather patterns to the north. So as all features get shifted to the north, that includes the storm tracks,” Walsh said.

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As storms move north of the Aleutians, Walsh said, wind speeds would likely decrease in southern and Southeast Alaska.

While high winds brought by storms would become more frequent in Western Alaska, that doesn’t necessarily mean maximum wind speeds will increase, he said. He also said that climate models show that high wind storms are most likely to increase during the winter months, between October and March. Projections show little change in wind speeds between late spring and early fall.

UAF climate scientist Rick Thoman, who was not involved in Walsh’s research, said that his colleague’s findings make sense. Thoman said that if Walsh is correct, and storms do move north, that wouldn’t just change wind speeds, but their direction too.

“We’re gonna have more instances where instead of being in the northeast winds, there’ll be more times when we’re in the westerly or southwesterly winds part of the storm,” Thoman said. “That, of course, is very problematic for places on the immediate coast that have some version of westerly facing ocean. Places like Quinhagak, which already had terrible erosion problems.”

In another Western Alaska community, Napakiak’s riverbank is eroding three times faster than it was 10 years ago. Walsh’s research shows that wind speeds have already increased by 10% to 30% in the last 40 years.

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Any potential benefits of increased wind speeds are murky.

The Alaska Village Electric Cooperative operates 30 wind turbines across Western Alaska. President and CEO Bill Stamm said that it’s difficult to tell whether high winds during storms would benefit wind turbines. For one, he said, AVEC’s wind turbines max out their energy generation once winds reach 30 mph.

“If we’re already at the maximum output of the wind turbine, it doesn’t matter if the wind blows any harder,” Stamm said.

And if wind speeds reach 55 miles per hour, turbines shut down for safety reasons. Then they aren’t generating any power. Plus, Stamm said, some wind turbines just aren’t built to handle heavy storms on a consistent basis.

“If you have extreme wind events, you have to buy a certain turbine that’s going to be able to endure that,” he said. “If we start shifting that bracket of what kind of wind a turbine can experience, we may have other problems.”

Climate scientist Thoman said that the projected changes in wind speeds are just one more example of drastic environmental changes that humans will have to contend with going forward.

“It’s more evidence to push us to prepare for things that we haven’t ever had to deal with before,” Thoman said.

Walsh said that his research’s projections for increased wind speeds are based on the assumption that humans continue to pump out greenhouse gases at their current rate. He said that the caveat is if humans mitigate their emissions, then the climate would not change as much and the predicted changes in wind speeds would be smaller.

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