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Ice forecaster watches for dangers in Arctic

Posted: Monday, July 04, 2005

ANCHORAGE - A change in wind and current rammed the frozen Bering Sea into the Norton Sound coast. The collision shattered the ice attached to shore. In an hour or two, a ragged ridge of ice, with chunks as large as Zambonis, tumbled into glacial rubble on a Nome street.

"That was two miles of ice that got creamed and got pushed up on shore," Russ Page said. "It comes (in) like a freight train."

Page is the ice man, the official sea ice forecaster for the National Weather Service in Alaska. From a carpeted cubicle in a climate- controlled building off Sand Lake Road, Page spies on the ebb and flow of the frozen ocean across an area larger than the continental United States - watching events from a thousand miles away - and then warns hunters, fishermen, sea captains and other Arctic travelers of potential danger.

The incident a few years back is what Alaska Natives call the ivu, one of the most deadly and frightening Arctic phenomena, the sea ice version of a tsunami. It can destroy whaling camps in minutes, sometimes crushing hunters before they can flee.

Page catches most of them but failed to see this ivu coming. Now he keeps digital photos of the incident on his computer as a reminder.

"I busted the forecast on that ivu," Page said. "I blew that one, so this is still a learning process."

Ice can kill. Closing leads of open water can crush ships or trap barges. Fishing boats venturing too far north at the wrong moment can capsize from the weight of ice forming on deck.

But give mariners and subsistence hunters a reliable prediction of what the ice might do next, and they can stay safe.

"My clients, they're between a rock and a hard place," Page said. "I don't know anybody who wants to go out to die. They all want to make it back."

The career meteorologist, a former Air Force weatherman, conjures his forecasts with a unique recipe, drawing on space-age technology, historical records and a mathematical savvy.

"Basically, weather is just a study of what happens in a fluid, the fluid being air and really, what you're watching, you're using clouds as tracers that tell you how it deforms," he said.

The three computers on his desk stay tuned to different forecasting tools, including supercomputer models produced by the U.S. Navy and the Canadian Ice Service, plus radar and infrared images scanned by satellites. Page also gathers observations from buoys and ships, hunters and scientists.

"The really interesting thing is you could do it just as easily from the East Coast," Page said. "You'd have access to the same satellites and data."

But few other computer jockeys would bring Page's perspective to the job.

Sitting at his desk, he shifts from the world's most sophisticated supercomputers to ice maps drawn a half century ago by pioneer scientists. He charts climate shifts, sea surface temperatures and the sun spot cycle.

Add it up, and Page has spent the last 10 years building a reputation among scientists and other forecasters as one of the canniest ice men in the world. Each week, Page and other meteorologists produce three forecasts and two analyses of ice near Alaska. He publishes online 20 annotated maps drawn from satellite images of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas, his geographic focus drifting north and south with the seasonal vagaries of the ice itself.



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