Winter in Unalaska by Sam Zmolek
Your voice in the Aleutians.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
The KUCB Newsroom provides newscasts Monday through Thursday at noon and 5 PM on KUCB Radio. You can find many of our local news stories here.

Alaska geologists dig into Bering Sea’s past storms to understand future ones

Typhoon Nuri in 2014 was one of the most intense storms on record in the Bering Sea.
Courtesy of NASA
An image of Typhoon Nuri at peak intensity over the Bering Sea on Nov. 8, 2014, one of the most intense storms on record in the Bering Sea. Coastal Alaska is on the front lines of climate change, and extreme weather events are becoming more common.

Coastal Alaska is on the front lines of climate change. Extreme weather events like Typhoon Merbok that pummeled western Alaska last fall are becoming more common. And many communities along Alaska’s shores are wondering if the future will bring more of the same.

The Arctic Coastal Geoscience Lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has spent the last four years trying to answer that question — what storms might look like in the future. They’re doing that by looking into the past.

“You've often heard that story that the past is the key to the future,” said Chris Maio, the lab’s director. “And so in geology and understanding coastal changes, we're really looking into the past through sediment cores.”

Sediment cores are cylindrical sections that scientists extract from the earth's crust. The UAF researchers use a piston core to insert a long pipe into the seafloor and pull out a tube of earth, which displays the varying strata.

Under normal conditions, the sediment in bays and fjords around the Aleutians is very fine-grained, like silt or mud. But when a storm comes in, it churns up the ocean and moves larger sediment.

Scientists can see those layers in the core and use radiocarbon dating to determine when an event occurred.

“We can look hundreds of years into the past and understand how many big storms were occurring each century,” Maio said. “Were the storms occurring because of regional or global climate changes, warming events or things like that?”

Reyce Bogardus has worked alongside Maio since the project’s beginning in 2021. He described it as a sort of timeline of major storms in the Bering Sea.

“We're building an archive of storminess,” Bogardus said. “The crux of the project is to extend our record of storms in the region — we're trying to get at storminess thousands of years in the past to learn about the future.”

The crew recently returned from a trip to Atka Island, where they worked with the local tribe to extract about a dozen cores. Next, they’ll ship those samples to the lab for carbon dating.

The team is planning another trip to the Aleutians during summer 2024. They hope to complete the final project by 2025.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
Related Content
  • Hurricane-level winds slammed the Aleutian Islands Thursday night, ripping off roofs and tearing boats from their docks.In Unalaska, the region’s largest city, the National Weather Service recorded wind gusts of up to 132 mph.
  • How cold is the water in the Bering Sea? That’s what a group of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to know. NOAA is currently out in the Aleutian Islands running their annual Eastern Bering Sea Bottom Trawl Survey. They've been running annual surveys since the 1970s, mainly to collect data on the distribution and abundance of bottom-dwelling species like crab and groundfish. But this year they’re paying special attention to the cold pool—a section of bottom water that stays cold through the summer. It affects everything from when fish spawn to what part of the ocean they live in.
  • A historic anchor showed up at the dock in Unalaska on Saturday. A cargo ship had pulled it up while in Bristol Bay for the salmon fishery. Now someone in Unalaska has to figure out when and where that anchor came from, and how to preserve it.