Caught in a major storm, UAF researchers make the best of it

Rod Boyce
Sept. 21, 2022

On St. Paul Island, in the Bering Sea about 300 miles from Alaska’s coast, the still-powerful remains of Typhoon Merbok passed overhead, churning up the ocean and rolling across the landscape on a path to the Alaska mainland.

As the storm hit the small island, three University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers, two graduate students and a filmmaker went out for a look.

Researchers on St. Paul Island
Photo by Chris Maio
Chris Maio, Lindsey Smith, Matthew Wooller and Harper Baldwin huddle for a group photo as the storm rages.

“We went out driving around during the storm to document the conditions, and there were a couple of roads flooded,” said Chris Maio, who runs the Geophysical Institute’s Arctic Coastal Geoscience Lab, in a Monday evening phone call from the island.

“And huge cobbles were getting launched onto some of the roads and the beaches by the waves,” he said. “The power of the storm was amazing. These are like 150-pound rocks that in some areas were being propelled about 30 feet above the waterline.”

Maio and the group are on the island to research the impacts of ancient and modern storms, working in partnership with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Environmental Conservation Office. The researchers arrived on the island Sept. 12 and are scheduled to leave Sept. 22.

The National Science Foundation is funding the research. It also funded a related month-long Bering Sea project of Maio’s aboard the research vessel Sikuliaq in July and August. The National Science Foundation owns the vessel, which is operated by the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. 

The storm caused Maio and the team to adjust.

“We are out here studying storms and their impacts, so it was  fortunate to be out here,” Maio said. “It certainly disrupted things. Once the storm happened, we shifted our plan to do the post-storm survey. We’ve been doing drone surveys and GPS surveys of the flood height and storm impacts and also assisting the tribal office with some of the debris clean-up.”

Filmmaker walks at edge of St. Paul Island
Photo by Chris Maio
Filmmaker Fritz Mueller walks at the edge of St. Paul Island as waves crash ashore, driven by the remnants of Typhoon Merbok as it passes over St. Paul Island.

Maio is on the island with Nancy Bigelow, director of the UAF Alaska Quaternary Center; Matthew Wooller of the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences; graduate students Harper Baldwin and Lindsey Smith and filmmaker ​​Fritz Mueller. 

Maio said the storm peaked on the island at about 2 p.m. Friday, with estimated sustained winds of about 55 mph and gusts of 75 mph, hurricane level.

“We went out a couple hours before the storm and then took shelter during the peak of the storm in the tribe’s apartment in one of the older and more secure areas of the city when it was getting too rough to be out,” he said. “Then we went out a few hours after the peak and began to survey all the damage.”

Being out in a storm that pummels the landscape isn’t anything new for Maio, however. He grew up in Cape Cod, where hurricanes occasionally bring their havoc.

“This was definitely comparable to those big hurricanes that I went through,” he said.