WORKING THROUGH THE STORM— A NJUS line crew is fixing a power outage near Steadman St. during the Dec. 28 storm.

Storm pummels region with high winds

By Peter Loewi
The Seward Peninsula was battered by a series of storms that culminated in disruptive storm on Dec. 28 with wild temperature swings and strong winds recording at 70 miles per hour on Tuesday, Dec. 28, at the Nome airport. The FAA weather station at Savoonga recorded sustained winds at 63 mph and gusts of 75 mph.
According to Rick Thoman, climate specialist at Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at UAF, this particular storm, the last in a series moving through the Bering Sea, formed southwest of St. Lawrence Island and moved northeast. After crossing St. Lawrence Island, it headed across the Seward Peninsula towards near Shishmaref, before weakening east of Kotzebue.
These types of strong west winds brought cold air rushing into the region, and temperatures dropped rapidly from 32°F on the evening of Dec. 28 to 0°F and much colder windchill that night. Power outages throughout Nome forced NJUS line crews out to repair lines in the middle of the horrendous storm. Nome’s Mayor and NJUS General Manager John Handeland said that the freezing rain coated the electrical and communication wires, making them heavy and rigid. “With the wind blowing, too, we actually did have a section snap, which I’ve never seen happen before,” he said. “It just put too much tension on it, and it caused it to snap. When one section lets loose and the tension gets off of it, that just allows a couple more spans to fall to the ground, as well.” This wire snapping caused outages in Icy View, Nome-Beltz, Anvil Mountain and around the correctional facility. This line section wasn’t easily accessible for a boom truck, and the crews had to wait until the visibility was good enough to plow their way to the broken wire and downed spans.
By this time, however, the crews had already braved the elements for 12 hours, and so the next crew was called to fix it. NJUS has four people working in the lines department, four in the water and sewer department, and nine at the power plant, and during the storm, they banded together to “make a bad situation better,” Handeland said. It’s a small team, Handeland says, but adequate to take care of the system.  “Our folks tried to grade to the extent possible but viewing conditions became marginal to zero in a very short time,” he said.   
Social media reports show home weather stations in clocking the winds at 83 mph.
The region took a beating, with few reports of damage and even fewer reports of injury.
The strong winds blew out the sea ice at Elim. Unalakleet saw water levels rise to 10.7 feet, more than six times above the predicted 1.7 feet. Nome saw wind speeds of 70 mph, the highest recorded at the Nome airport since December 29, 1977.
A group of snowmachiners got separated while traveling to Brevig Mission, but arrived safely shortly after the call to the Alaska State Troopers.
St. Michael had problems with their road grader, so the IRA sanded the roads, but the high winds blew the sand away, leaving essentially untreated icy roads. Despite vehicles sliding off the roads, no injuries were reported. The power also went out for several hours. None of this interfered with the plan to send 50 platters of Subway to residents for a COVID-safe New Year’s celebration.
Savoonga had freezing snow showers during the day before the winds picked up in the evening. This didn’t lead to white out conditions because the snow was wet, which also froze much of the loose debris to the ground. Only one window was reported destroyed by flying debris.
The village prepared in case something happened, heating fuel tanks, protecting furnaces, and making sure hoses don’t clog. “We got lucky this time,” a resident said.
Elders in Shaktoolik said that this was the windiest they’d seen it there. Several windows on the Norton Sound side of the village broke during the storm, and several houses had power flickering. Despite the power troubles starting on December 28, an AVEC linesman was unable to come until January 1.
Tuesday also saw snowmelt put December 2021 over the top, becoming the wettest December in recorded history with 3.85 inches of measured precipitation. The whole year 2021 saw 25.11 inches total of precipitation at the airport. Rick Thoman wrote that officially, this number would put 2021 as the eighth wettest year on record, even without adding precipitation that accumulated on several days during a wet March storm when the weather station in Nome failed gathering the data. He predicted that, if added in, 2021 could become the fifth.
Accurate regionwide data is challenging to obtain and several FAA weather stations were not functional during the Dec. 28 event. According to Thoman, the FAA weather station at Golovin missed a few observations during the height of the storm; Shaktoolik dropped offline for 12 hours during the storm; Teller and St. Michael were offline during the storm and remained offline until at least Dec. 31; weather stations in Elim and Gambell were online only intermittently and the FAA weather station in Wales has been offline since early December.
The storm not only affected the Nome, Norton Sound and Bering Strait region but moved records across the state. Thoman said via email that the same weather pattern was responsible for the extreme warmth in the Aleutians, Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak, including Unalaska at 56°F on Christmas Day, the highest temperature on record in the state on any Christmas. The next day, Cold Bay reached 62°F and Kodiak airport 65°F, while the NOAA tide gauge at Kodiak Harbor hit 67°F, the highest temperature on record anywhere in Alaska in the month of December.

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