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When Brutal Storm Slams Alaska, Hams Provide Critical Communications

11/22/2011

Cold, windy winter storms are nothing new to Alaska, “the Last Frontier.” But even infrastructure built to withstand some of the harshest conditions can fail. As a storm pummeled the small, isolated villages along the Bering Sea on November 8, it knocked out power lines and communications across the region. The only way the villages could communicate with each other -- and with officials and weather forecasters in Fairbanks and Anchorage -- was via ham radio. “The hams were providing critical observations,” explained Carven Scott, the Science and Operations Officer at the National Weather Service’s office in Anchorage. “We don’t have a lot of meteorological observations in the west. We don’t have the instruments out there.”

Scott told the Alaska Dispatch that the messages he received from radio amateurs were “deceptively simple”: How fast the wind was blowing and from what direction, sea level, wave height, whether it was snowing or raining and the temperature. “These seemingly small details from various villages made a big difference for the weather service -- enough so, Scott said, that a lead forecaster told him, ‘Whatever you do, don’t cut it off because this stuff is really helping us.’ Through the ham radio network, Scott and his colleagues learned that river ice in Koyuk was backing up and spilling onto the banks, roofs had blown off in Nome, water was surging in Nome, and rain and snow were falling in Shaktoolik and Savoonga.”

First-hand reports from people on the ground fed the information in real-time to the NWS, allowing forecasters to adjust and refine their analysis. So if forecasters predicted snow, but it’s raining instead, meteorologists can tweak their formulas. “Those seemingly unimportant pieces of information help us characterize where the front is at,” Scott told the Alaska Dispatch. “Without that information, it would impact our ability to execute our mission, which is the protection of life and property and enhancement of national commerce.”

According to the Alaska Dispatch, as soon as NWS forecasters became aware the storm’s severity, they quickly got word out to ARES® Alaska: “Whenever the National Weather Service has questions about what is going on or what is pending in a far-off place, they will call on the amateur community to try and provide current update information,” explained Jerry Curry, KL7EDK, of Fairbanks. “They don’t have the ability to see what’s going on out there. It enables them to produce better and more accurate forecasts.”

Martin Ruud, WL7MR, of Nome, is a member of ARES® Alaska. Rudd provided communications support for about 48 hours, beginning on November 8 when the storm first hit. Inside his warm home, he draped sleeping bags over his windows to protect himself and his equipment in case a wind gust shattered the glass. Outside, a 160 meter antenna stood ready. While Ruud was standing by in Nome, operators in Kenai, Ketchikan, Fairbanks and Whitehorse were also ready to take voice messages and get them to where they needed to go.

According to the Alaska Dispatch, Ruud fielded messages from islands and other coastal communities: “In Gambell, a village at the northern tip of St Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, Job Koonooka was his contact. In Elim, east of Nome on the shore of Norton Sound, it was John Jemeouk. In Shishmaref, it was Bobby Iyatunguk. He had others in St Michael, Little Diomede, Brevig Mission and Koyuk. Many of these smaller communities relied on Internet or phone connections to get their status updates to Ruud, who then fed them into an email format that he beamed out via radio, sometimes with pictures attached, to larger processing centers. From these larger systems, the messages ‘jumped track’ from the radio network to the Internet and continued their journey to the e-mail inboxes of other ham operators, including those working with the National Weather Service in Alaska.”

Rudd received a message from Bobby Iyatunguk in Shishmaref during the storm, telling him that none of the village’s residents had been injured, phones still worked, there was no known damage, the gym was open, businesses were closed and that help wasn’t needed. But soon after Rudd received this message, Iyatunguk sent another one: CALM WINDS, WATER STILL RISING, LOTS OF WATER IN LAGOON SLOWLY GETTING TO HOMES. Earlier in the storm cycle, Shishmaref reported to Ruud that its emergency services center was up and running, its store had closed, power was on, phones were working, wind was coming in from the south at 35-40 miles per hour, and the beach was holding up during a rising tide.

Through the Amateur Radio network, Ruud was able to distribute a picture sent from the village of Koyuk showing ice beginning to build, as well as this message: “Blizzard conditions set in 10 PM, winds 15 from SE gusts up to 25. Tide has not come in yet. Tide receded about 3.5 feet from the highest tide. No property damages as of last update or personal injury. Still haven’t heard if the school or businesses will close tomorrow. Businesses open normal hours this evening. So far so good.”

During the storm, ARES® Alaska showed it’s a good complement to the state’s emergency system. “More than a back up, it demonstrated it can fill information gaps -- though it will never replace the communication used by those in command,” the Alaska Dispatch stated. “Ham operators always defer to official responders during any crisis.” ARRL Alaska Section Manager Jim Larsen, AL7FS, agreed. “We actually hope we never get used,” he said. “But we want to help our communities -- so if they need us, we want to be as prepared as we can.”

Curry called Amateur Radio “a kind of ‘Plan B’ for anything else that doesn’t work. It is basically a world or global messaging system. A ham radio operator with the right equipment can send a message from just about anywhere in the world.”  -- Thanks to the Alaska Dispatch for the information



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