OPEN AIR CONCERT – From left, musicians Ross Venneberg, Brian Neal, Wade Demmert and Roger Schmidt perform an outdoor brass concert for residents of the Pioneers Home Monday. The professional musicians, who are hunkered down in Sitka, are regulars at the annual Holiday Brass Concert. The Pioneers Home has been closed to visitors during the pandemic. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Arctic Vessel Finding Open Water, Not Ice

Associated Press
    ANCHORAGE (AP) — The U.S. research vessel Sikuliaq can break through ice as thick as 2.5 feet (0.76 meters). In the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska this month, which should be brimming with floes, its limits likely won’t be tested.
    University of Washington researchers left Nome on Nov. 7 on the 261-foot (79.5-meter) ship, crossed through the Bering Strait and will record observations at multiple sites including Utqiaġvik, formerly Barrow, America’s northernmost community. Sea ice is creeping toward the city from the east in the Beaufort Sea, but to find sea ice in the Chukchi, the Sikuliaq would have to head northwest for about 200 miles (322 kilometers).
    In the new reality of the U.S. Arctic, open water is the November norm for the Chukchi. Instead of thick, years-old ice, researchers are studying waves and how they may pummel the northern Alaska coastline.
    “We’re trying to understand what the new autumn looks like in the Arctic,” said Jim Thomson, an oceanographer at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory.
    Chukchi sea ice in early November was at its lowest level on record, said Rick Thoman, a climate expert at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center and a former National Weather Service forecaster.
    Low ice is a problem for people of the coast. Communities north and south of the Bering Strait rely on near-shore ice to act as a natural sea wall, protecting land from erosion brought on by winter storms.
    Sea ice is a platform from which to catch crab or cod in Nome, a transportation corridor between villages in Kotzebue Sound and a work station on which to butcher walrus near Gambell.
    Sea ice is also one of the most important physical elements of the Chukchi and Bering seas. The cold, salty water underneath ice creates structure in the water column that separates Arctic species from commercially valuable fish such as Pacific cod and walleye pollock. When sea ice melts, it creates conditions important for the development of microorganisms at the base of the food web.

This Nov. 14 photo shows the research vessel Sikuliaq as it makes its way through thin sea ice in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s north coast. University of Washington scientists onboard the research vessel are studying how less sea ice will affect coastlines, which already are vulnerable to erosion.  (John Guillote via AP)

    And then there’s wildlife. Sea ice is the prime habitat for polar bears and the preferred location for dens where females give birth. Female walruses with young use sea ice as a resting platform and follow the ice edge south as it moves into the Bering Sea.
    The formation of sea ice requires the ocean temperature to be about 28 degrees (-1.8 C), the freezing point of saltwater. Historically, ice has formed in the northernmost waters and been moved by currents and wind into the southern Chukchi and Bering seas, where it cools the water, allowing even more ice to form, said Andy Mahoney, a sea ice physicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.
    Forecasters 20 years ago took it as a given that the water temperature would be cold enough to form sea ice.
    “Even at the end of summer you couldn’t get enough heat into the ocean to raise the water temperature significantly above freezing,” Mahoney said. “So it didn’t take much cooling to cool the ocean down to the freezing point.”
    Climate warming has brought a harsh new reality. High summer temperatures have warmed the entire water column in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Water temperatures from the surface to the ocean bottom remain above normal, delaying ice formation.
    “We’ve got a cold atmosphere. We’ve got a strong wind. You’d think we’d be forming ice, but there’s just too much heat left in the ocean,” Mahoney said.
    The water potentially is warm enough to melt ice moving south from northern locations.
    “I haven’t seen any direct observations where ice has been transported into the Chukchi Sea and then melted,” Mahoney said. “But the water temperature maps that I’ve seen, they’re still significantly positive in Celsius. And you can’t grow ice, even if you bring ice in, if the water temperature is above freezing, that ice is ultimately going to experience melting from the water temperature.”
    Thomson and other scientists on the Sikuliaq will look at how the changes could affect coastlines, which already are eroding. Less ice and more open water translate to a significant threat. Ice acts as a smothering blanket, keeping down the size of waves. Open water increases fetch, the distance over which wave-generating winds blow.
    “We know from other projects and other work that the waves are definitely on the increase in the Arctic,” Thomson said.
    That means even more erosion, the chance of winter flooding in villages and increased danger to hunters in small boats and longer distances for them to travel to find seals and walruses.
    Forecasting sea ice is notoriously difficult but Thoman, the ex-weather forecaster, said he expects a less than robust year for sea ice.
    “Maybe the horizontal extent conceivably gets up to normal, but it has to be extremely thin and it will be subject to rapid melting if we get into a stormy period in the winter or spring,” Thoman said. “And even if that doesn’t happen, because it’s thinner, it means it’s going to melt out sooner come next spring.”



Alaska COVID-19
At a Glance

(updated 7-7-20)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 11:15 p.m. Tuesday.

New cases as of Sunday: 19

Total statewide – 1,184

Total (cumulative) deaths – 17

Active cases in Sitka – 8 (3 resident; 5 non-resident)

Recovered cases in Sitka – 12 (10 resident; 2 non-resident)

The state says the cumulative number of cases hospitalized is 78.

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.



Welcome to the Sitka Sentinel's web page. In order to make the Sentinel's news more easily available during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have taken down the paywall to access articles on this page. Just click on an article headline to read the story. 

March 23, 2020



For the duration of the COVID-19 disaster emergency declared by federal, state and local authorities, the Sentinel is taking additional measures to reduce virus exposure to its employees and contractors as well as to the public, while continuing to publish a daily news report for Sitka.

To the extent possible, Sentinel news and sales staff will be working from home. For the protection of our carriers, home delivery of the newspaper will be stopped effective Tuesday, March 24.

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