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Storm off Alaska's coast sidelines Arctic Row expedition

Mike Campbell
Courtesy Arctic Row

One of strongest August storms in the Arctic Ocean in the last 34 years was far enough offshore that the effects in Barrow were minimal for residents – but awful for a team of rowers plying the Arctic Ocean from northern Canada to Russia. 

Paul Newman, chief scientist for Atmospheric Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said there have been only eight storms of comparable strength in more than three decades. But because the storm was centered about 500 miles offshore, the effects in Barrow were slight.

“It was well north of us,” Paul Anderson of the National Weather Service in Barrow said of the Aug. 6 storm.  “We really didn’t have anything here in Barrow. We had some winds, but that was about it.” Those winds were steady at 20 mph, he noted, gusting to 41 mph.

Arctic storms can have a large impact on the sea ice, Newman said, causing it to melt rapidly, occasionally tearing off large swaths of ice and pushing them to warmer sites. That can churn the ice and make it slushier -- or lift warmer waters from the depths of the Arctic Ocean.

“It seems that this storm has detached a large chunk of ice from the main sea ice pack. This could lead to a more serious decay of the summertime ice cover than would have been the case otherwise, even perhaps leading to a new Arctic sea ice minimum,” said Claire Parkinson, a climate scientist with NASA Goddard. “Decades ago, a storm of the same magnitude would have been less likely to have as large an impact on the sea ice, because at that time the ice cover was thicker and more expansive.”

But last weekend, the expedition, known as Arctic Row, slammed into the storm’s residue. Steady 20 mph winds along with “mass amounts of ice” were enough to stall their progress. A blogger writing on behalf of the crew reported the rowers were anchored about two miles south of Barrow, unable to advance into the headwind and forced to hole up in Barrow Lagoon.

The four-rower team is bidding to row nonstop without support across the Arctic Ocean from northern Canada to Russia. Paul Ridley, Collin West, Neal Mueller and Scott Mortensen are in a 29-foot-long, 6-foot-wide rowboat that left Inuvik, Northwest Territories 25 days ago.

“There’s something good and noble and pure that comes with this adversity,” the Arctic Row blog reported Thursday. “We are running out of time and resources, and yet our resolve has never been stronger. Something tells us these winds will change. They will blow from the east.  We will row again.”

And on Thursday Aug. 9, they did.

“As I write this,” the blog reported Friday, “Paul (Ridley) and Collin (West) are suiting up to row the first shift any of them have rowed in about one million days. They’re planning to row 5 miles, to Point Barrow, tonight, where they will be in the best position to start south again as soon as conditions allow. The storm has subsided enough that they no longer need the safety of their lagoon.”

Similar to the huge storm battered northwest Alaska coastlines last fall, nicknames for the Arctic Sea storm began cropping up soon after the wind started blowing.  Arcticlone was one.  Arcticane was another.

In one way, the crew was relieved to hear NASA’s assessment about how unusual the Arctic Sea storm was for the month of August.  “At least we know they guys aren’t faking it,” the blog noted. 

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com