EOS Professor Andrea Hawkes Receives $433,374 NSF Grant to Study History and Impacts of Bering Sea Storms

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Andrea Hawkes invokes the popular TV series “Deadliest Catch” to describe the intensity of the Bering Sea storms she and her team are studying. Hawkes, professor of earth and ocean sciences, was awarded a three-year, $433,374 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs to research the frequency and effect of those storms on the Aleutian Islands.
Communities in the Aleutians depend heavily on the fishing industry and are susceptible to flooding and erosion. Involvement from the local communities will help the researchers understand the history of these impacts and how their frequency and magnitude have changed over time.
“If you’ve ever seen that show, you can envision how strong these storms can be,” Hawkes said. “Weather systems that travel across the northern Pacific can produce massive storms and waves that pick up sediment push it into fjords in the Aleutian Islands.” That sediment is part of her research, which is part of a $1.84 million grant collaboration that includes UNCW, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska in the Aleutians.
Chris LaClair, a research specialist for UNCW’s Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program, and several students are part of Hawkes’ team. The research incorporates undergraduate and graduate students with a focus on increasing the representation of indigenous Alaskans, women, minorities and people with disabilities in STEM fields.
Researchers extract cores of deposited sediment from the fjords that contain the history of storms in the region – potentially over thousands of years. In preparation for the grant application, Hawkes and her colleagues brought up a 12-meter core, enough to supply information on storms during the past 1,500 years.
Some fjords contain over 40 meters or more of sediment, and the grant team is planning a research cruise in summer 2022 or 2023 that may enable them to pull up deeper cores to provide more information about the history of storms in the Bering Sea, which is among the most productive fisheries in the world. Dutch Harbor in the city of Unalaska is the largest seafood port in the United States by volume caught and second largest in dollar value, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Frequent and increasingly strong storms in recent years make it dangerous to send out fishing vessels. Additionally, stormy seas prevent sea ice from developing, which hinders the growth of the plankton that is the basis of the fish food chain, Hawkes said.
Because the region has only a short record of instrument-based weather monitoring, Hawkes’ team will study the sediment cores to help reconstruct the severity and frequency of past storms. By doing so and also monitoring actual storms, Hawkes expects to be able to provide data to the National Weather Service to help improve storm and flood forecasting.
“Research that has an impact on communities and engages local residents is a key component of UNCW’s Strategic Plan,” said Stuart Borrett, associate provost for research, innovation and commercialization. “Dr. Hawkes’ project will provide data that has not existed before now to help scientists better understand the storms that affect the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands communities.”
-- Tricia Vance