National Weather Service & Merbok: Lessons in forecasting and communicating

Zero death count from Alaska’s strongest coastal storm in 50 years
Meteorologist Joe Bartosik looks into what went well and what challenges existed with forecasting and communicating Merbok's impacts.
Published: Oct. 18, 2022 at 12:09 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Providing critical weather impact-based information for the protection of life and property is the mission of the National Weather Service. One month since former Typhoon Merbok caused widespread destruction along Alaska’s west coast, forecasters in Alaska are beginning to look at how well they predicted the storm’s surge, and what could be done better in the future, in both messaging and delivery.

The scenes residents saw along Alaska’s west coast resembled ones from a landfalling hurricane in the Lower 48. Massive waves crashing against buildings and reshaped the coastline. Water surging inland and becoming high enough to float homes away. Yet, there was one scene strangely, yet thankfully, absent.

“Almost inevitably you have injuries, you inevitably have loss of life, even in those states that prep for this all the time. So, for us here in Alaska not to have loss of life, or injuries, or those missing, I think is a very good thing,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said at a press conference the day the storm ended.

Praise for the National Weather Service’s early warnings continued from the state’s top officials in the days following the storm as response efforts were being mobilized.

“The Weather Service did a pretty good job in predicting this storm, and so as an individual that has lived out in rural Alaska, and I’ve talked to folks out there, people were preparing to the extent of securing personal belongings, talking to neighbors and friends as to what they are going to do if this hits, municipal leaders designating whether it’s gymnasiums or other places for folks to go to,” Dunleavy said.

Don Moore, with the National Weather Service, says confidence in the computer models grew high enough to sound the alarm about a week ahead of time.

“We were fortunate in that we were participating in an exercise with the state emergency operations center and (Federal Emergency Management Agency) on that Monday prior to the storm coming,” Moore said. “And so we had immediate conversations with them early on in the event about the potential of the storm coming up. And so it really set the stage for us to make sure that we were communicating this early.”

Nothing is perfect, however, and as the storm moved north of the Seward Peninsula, forecasters faced one critical challenge as there are only a handful of key water level observations outside of Unalakleet and Nome.

“If something happens in the middle of the night, we’re not able to monitor that, you know, through an observation,” Moore said. “So it’s really with communicating with the different communities and hearing the impacts there, so it’s definitely challenging for us to know what is going on at the moment.”

Fortunately, the storm was already rapidly weakening at this point, but Moore stated that the overall destruction from this storm could help to make the case for the federal government to fund additional instruments in northwest Alaska during regular budget negotiations in the future.

Overall, though, in a “prepare for the worst, hope for the best” environment, no loss of life certainly meets the goal and mission.