Typhoon Merbok, fueled by unusually warm Pacific Ocean, pounded Alaska's vulnerable coastal communities at a critical time

The powerful remnants of Typhoon Merbok pounded Alaska’s western coast on Sept. 17, 2022, pushing homes off their foundations and tearing apart protective berms as water flooded communities.

Storms aren’t unusual here, but Merbok built up over unusually warm water. Its waves reached 50 feet over the Bering Sea, and its storm surge sent water levels into communities at near record highs along with near hurricane-force winds.

Merbok also hit during the fall subsistence harvest season, when the region’s Indigenous communities are stocking up food for the winter. Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, explained why the storm was unusual and the impact it’s having on coastal Alaskans.

What stands out the most about this storm?

It isn’t unusual for typhoons to affect some portion of Alaska, typically in the fall, but Merbok was different.

It formed in a part of the Pacific, far east of Japan, where historically few typhoons form. The water there is typically too cold to support a typhoon, but right now, we have extremely warm water in the north-central Pacific. Merbok traveled right over waters that are the warmest on record going back about 100 years.