Former Typhoon Merbok devastates Alaska with historic storm surge

A historic storm battered western Alaska on Friday and Saturday with gale force winds, seas over 50 feet and coastal flooding not seen in decades.

What used to be Typhoon Merbok turned into a powerful North Pacific storm as it sped almost due north, edging through the Aleutian Islands and into the Bering Sea on Friday, bringing a dangerous storm surge that submerged coastal villages and towns under several feet of water for hours .

Water levels in Unalakleet were over 11 feet Saturday morning and are expected to peak at 15 feet later Saturday afternoon, making one of the highest peaks on record, according to the National Weather Service.

Major flooding was reported in Golovin, where a double whammy of rain and wind battered the coastal town.

Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy declared western parts of the state a disaster area on Saturday. The governor said despite the record-breaking impact, the emergency response center has received no reports of injuries.

Water surrounds the school while houses and other buildings have been flooded. “A few houses floated off their foundations,” wrote the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, “and some fuel tanks tipped over.”

Highest water levels were not expected until Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile, the wind has blown up to 62 miles per hour there.

The Bering Sea pushed via berms along Shaktoolik and water entered the coastal community, inundating homes. Residents were evacuated to the town’s school and clinic.

In Nome, the forecast peak rise is 12.45 feet — 9 feet above the high tide line — for later Saturday, with water reaching 5 feet above the high tide level in Red Dog.

Winds reach over 90 mph in places

The storm surge was driven by strong winds that circled the deep storm center, which had reached as high as 937 millibars as it approached the Aleutian Islands.

Cape Romanzof measured a 91 mph gust while gusts reached 74 mph at St. Paul Island and 62 mph at Adak and Golovin.

Offshore, the storm unleashed monster seas in excess of 50 feet. A buoy 310 miles north of Adak reported wave heights of nearly 52 feet in wind gusts of 74 miles per hour late Friday morning.

“Even though it’s not officially a typhoon — what we in the (US) might call a hurricane — it still has all this powerful energy,” said FOX Weather meteorologist Britta Merwin. “If you have strong winds, you push a lot of water in and that means sea levels will rise and coastal flooding will be as much of a problem as storm surges.”

Worse still, as the storm slows on its arctic exit, high water levels will persist for 10 to 14 hours, allowing wind-driven waves to push the surf far inland and cause additional damage.

“Impacts could surpass the 2011 Bering Sea superstorm, and some locations could experience their worst coastal flooding in nearly 50 years,” forecasters for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks wrote early Friday morning.

“The storm is great,” said Merwin. “It still retains all of those characteristics from when it was a typhoon, but now it’s a cold core system — a non-tropical storm — that will hit Alaska with some very strong winds.”

Floods on the Alaskan coast
Winds would bid up to 62 miles per hour.

Intense storm systems are common in Alaska, but seeing an extratropical cyclone with a pressure less than 940 millibars is not common. The most recent surface analysis as of 8 a.m. ET estimated the storm’s central pressure at 937 mb, the same as that lowest low in September measured in the region for at least the last 17 years.

“It will definitely be a significant event. It’s shaping up to be one of the worst events we’ve seen in years,” said the National Weather Service’s office in Fairbanks, Alaska.

The threatened region contributes $5 billion to Alaska’s economy

Communities like Adak, Unalaska, St. Paul, St. Johns and Bethel will all be near the center of the storm where winds and rain will be strongest.

“Most of these Alaskan communities don’t have the means to evacuate if a storm hits. So they usually go to shared accommodation, which is the safe option,” said Jeremy Zidek, public information officer at Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “Supply chain issues, transportation issues, and weather issues are a regular occurrence, so people have to be pretty resilient to even live in those areas.”

Alaska's west coast could experience flooding and strong winds as the remnants of Typhoon Merbok encroached on the Bering Sea region.
Typhoon Merbok is expected to have a major impact on US weather.
AP Photo/Peggy Fagerstrom

Meteorologists and first responders are most concerned about the maritime community, which produces most of the country’s seafood.

Pacific salmon, crab, Pacific cod, shrimp, herring, saber pollock and Pacific halibut are all harvested in Alaska and generate more than $5 billion in economic activity in Alaska each year.

Earlier Typhoon Merbok affects US weather

Typhoon Merbok is one of several significant western Pacific storm systems expected to be jet-streamed and affecting U.S. weather.

Unusually warm waters in the North Pacific are one of the ingredients helping to improve the life cycle and strength of northern cyclones, but not enough to help them maintain their tropical cyclone identity into northern latitudes.

Similar to the Atlantic Basin, the Pacific Northwest typhoon season is trailing behind normal, seeing only about half the storms they are used to through mid-September.

In recent weeks, the western Pacific has seen a surge in activity with Typhoons Muifa, Hinnamnor and Merbok.

Most, if not all, will result in Alaskan impacts with rain, wind and high seas, meaning the 49th state could be in stock for a rainy season.

Experts from the NWS Climate Prediction Center expect several weeks of above-average rainfall in the state. Former Typhoon Merbok devastates Alaska with historic storm surge


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