Temperatures in the northern Bering and southern Chukchi seas are once again smashing records. The warmer temperatures will weaken winter sea ice and promise a later freeze-up for coastal communities in Western Alaska.
Hooper Bay is experiencing some familiar climate change trends.
"The birds are coming in earlier this spring. Everything is earlier this spring," said Eric Olson, the tribal council president for Hooper Bay, a coastal community near the Bering Sea.
Hooper Bay is seeing the impacts of climate change firsthand. That includes weaker sea ice in the winter and accelerating erosion.
"Our beach down there is eroding every year, spring and especially fall time, every time we have high winds, high waves, it erodes," Olson said.
These trends are not slowing down, according to Rick Thoman, a climatologist in Alaska.
"Last year we were saying the same thing about warmer temperatures in the Bering and Chukchi seas, and this year was even warmer than last year," Thoman said.
He’s talking about the seas’ surface temperatures. Thoman says that temperatures have been 8 degrees above normal this year, and those numbers rose 3 degrees over last year’s record-breaking temperatures.
Hooper Bay’s Olson says that he sees more open water where there used to be thick ice in the middle of winter. That makes it harder for hunters to catch the seal they depend on for food. Thoman says that water takes a long time to cool off, and the lack of sea ice means that the water doesn’t get to cool down as much.
"With ice forming later, that means the ice next winter, that means it will be thinner and breakup will be earlier, and that brings us back to next spring with warm temperatures again," Thoman said.
Coastal communities aren’t the only ones facing consequences from warmer oceans. Bethel is experiencing high humidity that typically isn’t seen until August. That makes it harder for fish to dry.
Back in Hooper Bay, Olson says that the village is starting to consider relocation. If Hooper Bay decides to move, it will join other Western Alaskan villages that are considering relocation or are in the middle of moving.
"The whole village if possible, but if people are willing to stay here, will stay here, people willing to move to a high ground will do so," Olson said.
Hooper Bay’s airport sits roughly 100 feet from the ocean, but Olson says that a seawall protects it from erosion for now. He doesn't know how long that will last.