A Clap of Thunder

John L. Daly


On 19th June 2000, a rare event occurred at Barrow, Alaska, which was to snowball its way into the scare politics of global warming, an event told, retold, and finally exaggerated out of all proportion.  

An hour before midnight on the 19th June 2000, Barrow experienced a thunderstorm.

So, where is Barrow?

Barrow lies on the northern Arctic coast of Alaska and is the most northerly point of the U.S.A. It is located on a narrow spit of land wedged in between the Arctic Ocean on one side and an eroding marshland on the other. 

Prudhoe Bay lies about 200 miles ESE of Barrow on the same coast.

The most noticeable feature of this part of Alaska is that it is low lying and flat, mostly frozen tundra which becomes soft and marshy during the short Arctic summer.

Barrow itself is only a few feet above sea level, while the coastline along northern Alaska is subject to erosion from the sea. 

As can be seen from this local map (left), the town itself (population 4,500) lies wedged  between the ocean and a mosaic of marshy lakes.  The prevailing wind comes from the northeast directly onto Elson Lagoon, resulting in coastal erosion.

In winter, the sea is solid with sea ice, the ice reaching up the shore causing further erosion of the low shoreline.

Most of the local population of Barrow are Inuit (Eskimo), of the Inupiat people, who inhabit most of this region of northern Alaska.

The Day of the Thunderstorm

When the thunderstorm occurred, it was mid-summer just two days before the summer solstice, with the Artic daylight lasting the full 24 hours of each day. The sea was by then clear of pack ice providing the atmospheric moisture necessary to feed a thunderstorm.

The next day, the National Weather Service announced the thunderstorm event  as quoted below

Rare Thunderstorm over Barrow

ABAK34 PABR 201854

1054 AM ADT TUE JUN 20 2000



Notice that the two previous thunderstorms since 1978 also occurred in mid summer. The bulletin described the thunderstorm as `rare', but clearly not unprecedented.  However, this is not the way it remained.  The Anchorage Daily News reported the thunderstorm repeating the fact that this was the third such event in 22 years. They also revealed that the Inupiat people had a word for it - "kalluk", meaning "thunderstorm" or "to thunder"(The mere existence of such a word in the Inupiat language implies that the occurrence, though rare, does nevertheless happen from time to time in their history.)

That is not the way the rest of the country heard it.  Within days, the `rare' event had become `the first ever thunderstorm at Barrow', a sure sign that the horrors of `Global Warming' was upon us. This new spin on the story was not simply restricted to the environmental media, but was also reported that way in the mainstream media, in the Australian press, and also - incredibly - by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), and even the NOAA itself.  A single weather event, of little importance in itself, had become the dramatic `smoking gun' of global warming, referred to repeatedly in both media and scientific circles in the run-up to the Hague Conference.  

As yet another `global warming' story, it was soon eclipsed by other similar scare stories, all softening up the public prior to the upcoming Hague Conference designed to stampede countries into signing and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.

As we now know, the Hague Conference failed to reach agreement due to the European refusal to consider `sinks' (such as forests to soak up surplus carbon dioxide), and the election of President Bush signalled an end to the stalled Kyoto process, resulting finally in his statement this year that the U.S. would not sign the protocol.

Enter the Senator

Since Bush's announcement, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee has been conducting hearings into climate change and the state of the science underpinning the global warming theory. Several expert witnesses appeared including James Hansen and Richard S. Lindzen.

But most surprising was the statements by Alaska senator Ted Stevens, as reported in the Nando Times. Here is an edited version of the story, focusing on Steven's comments in relation to Barrow.

Global warming threatens Alaskan villages

Copyright © 2001 Nando Media Copyright © 2001 Scripps Howard News Service 

By JOAN LOWY, Scripps Howard News Service 

WASHINGTON (May 5, 2001 12:45 p.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) - The disastrous consequences of global warming forecast by some scientists are already in evidence in Alaska, where rising sea levels threaten native villages and towns, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska told a Senate committee on Tuesday. 

"We face the problem of moving native villages that have been located along the Arctic and West coast of Alaska for centuries because they are slowly but surely being inundated by seawater," the Republican lawmaker told five top climate scientists testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee. 

One of the towns Stevens said will have to be relocated is Barrow, Alaska, on Point Barrow, the northern-most city in the United States with about 4,500 residents, most of them Inupiat Eskimos. 

"This is a creeping disaster," Stevens said. "We're not even sure it's covered by existing (federal) disaster loans." 

Last June, Barrow experienced its first-ever thunderstorm. 

Again we find the false `first-ever thunderstorm' claim being repeated, this time by one of Alaska's own senators. But now he adds yet a further twist to an already over-hyped story, the rising sea levels forcing the relocation of Barrow itself.  Is there any substance to this claim?

As it happens there is a tide gauge operating 200 miles away at Prudhoe Bay on the same stretch of coast, its data registered with the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level.  The data for Prudhoe Bay is shown below, scaled in millimetres (25 mm equals 1 inch) -

As can be readily seen, this coastline is subject to surges in sea level during the summer months, followed by a fall in level during the winter.  The graph itself is scaled between 10,800 mm and 11,300 mm, a range of 500 mm or 20 inches.  The sea level varies by nearly that amount between summer and winter, posing erosion problems for such a low lying marshy coastline.  1998, the year of the big El Niño, caused a short-lived rise in sea level globally, and this shows up also at Prudhoe Bay with an one-off August peak in 1998.  Apart from that, there is little in the above record to suggest anything but a stable sea level with a 17-inch variability through the year.

While Barrow is clearly vulnerable to coastal erosion given its low height above sea level and the eroding lagoons all around it, that erosion has nothing to do with rising sea level, but simply a natural geological process at work. It has been happening on many other coasts for centuries.

As for re-locating Barrow, that too is untrue.  The only Inuit villages which are being considered for relocation are the villages of Shishmaref and one or two others on the north coast of the Seward Peninsula.  The reason for their possible relocation is beach erosion, not sea level rise.  Barrow is not being considered for relocation, contrary to what the senator claimed.

Arctic Thunderstorms

Finally, we could ask to what extent thunderstorms occur in the Arctic.  Are they unprecedented as the Barrow Thunderstorm scare stories suggested, or do they happen at regular, if infrequent, intervals?

According to www.junkscience.com,  Captain Franklin once said in his journal - "... They reached the mouth of the Mackenzie on 30 August in a violent gale with thunder, lightning and torrents of rain."  This was in 1826 and the mouth of the Mackenzie River is at about the same latitude, roughly 20° longitude east of Barrow.

An article titled `Arctic Thunderstorms' by T. Neil Davis, (a seismologist at the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks), for the Alaska Science Forum, dated August 11, 1979,  tells us more about these events historically. According to Davis -

"The history of thunderstorms observed in the high arctic reads like that of great auroras at low latitude--it dates back many years, but the number of events is not large.

Part of the historical sparseness of observed thunderstorms in the Arctic Ocean and on surrounding shores is due simply to the lack of people to observe the thunderstorms. But mainly, thunderstorms are rare in arctic regions because the conditions necessary for formation of the tall clouds are lacking. A warm earth surface, irregular terrain and plenty of moisture in the middle atmosphere contribute to the formation of strong updrafts and the associated condensation of moisture at high altitudes involved in the development of thunderstorms.

Looking into thunderstorm history, Mr. Arne Hanson of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory at Barrow, Alaska, has uncovered an observation of an arctic thunderstorm made in 1580. A manuscript Hanson has prepared contains a quotation written aboard a ship sailing the Kara Sea, north of Siberia: "... the wince with a showre and thunder came to the Southwest and then wee ranne East Northeast."

Several thunderstorms on the north Siberia coast were recorded in the late 1700's, and at least nine were observed on the northern coasts of Canada, Alaska or Siberia by explorers in the period 1815-1826.

During the last 30 years, Hanson reports that three thunderstorms have been observed far offshore and well out over the icepack. These observations proved the error of a prediction made in 1933 by the famous oceanographer H. U. Sverdrup. He suggested that thunderstorms would never be observed out in the icepack area more than 100 km from shore."

Since these words were written in 1979, we have had three such thunderstorms at Barrow. Given the sparseness of population over such a vast wilderness, other thunderstorms which may have passed over unpopulated regions would have gone completely unreported.

But they do happen, they have always been happening, and they will happen again.

We certainly do not need to blame `global warming' for them.

The Barrow saga also demonstrates that the public cannot accept on trust the alarmist claims and misrepresentation of weather events by environmental groups, or the media.  Even many of the scientific institutions have failed in their duty of care to properly inform the public and to keep periodic events like the Barrow thunderstorm in their proper perspective.

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