Ice jams cause catastrophic flooding in Alaskan riverfront towns
Alaska’s Governor Mike Dunleavy declared a state of disaster on May 14, 2023, in the wake of extensive flooding caused by ice jams and rapid snowmelt along the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.
Devastating floods sparked by ice jams have wreaked havoc on communities settled along Alaska’s Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, prompting Governor Mike Dunleavy to declare a state of disaster on Sunday, May 14. The Yukon River, which starts its journey from the coastal mountains of Canada and snakes its way northwest for a span of approximately 3 200 km (2 000 miles), saw a substantial ice jam that led to disastrous flooding in numerous riverside communities.
The seasonal phenomenon known as the “spring breakup” in Alaska experienced a minor delay this year due to cooler-than-usual temperatures in April. Nonetheless, recent precipitation and temperatures climbing above freezing in eastern and north-central regions of Alaska have sparked the yearly thawing of the river ice, as stated by Tom Kines, Senior Meteorologist at AccuWeather.
The National Weather Service’s (NWS) Fairbanks office had already sounded the alarm in late April, cautioning that this year’s spring breakup could cause substantial flooding in riverside communities. This forecast was grounded in the observed snowpack, recorded ice thickness, and seasonal temperature projections.
Ed Plumb, a hydrologist with the NWS, clarified that a solid stretch of ice, spanning between 130 and 145 km (80 to 90 miles) along the Yukon River banks, instigated a significant surge in water levels in the town of Eagle, situated in eastern Alaska. He recounted how both the road connecting Eagle and Eagle Village and some buildings were utterly submerged under ice and water.
In a swift turn of events, the water that had flooded Eagle receded on Saturday, leaving behind massive ice blocks and making the roads inaccessible. The downstream movement of ice from the Yukon River put other riverside towns, including Circle, situated roughly 175 km (109 miles) northwest of Eagle, in the danger zone for severe flooding. Within a span of only 30 minutes, the water level in Circle shot up by nearly 3 m (10 feet), a consequence of the ice jam.
By the afternoon of Sunday, water levels in Circle had decreased, but the persistent presence of standing water and colossal ice chunks continues to pose a risk to the community. The Alaska state troopers confirmed the safety of all Circle inhabitants and reported zero injuries.
Kyle Wright, the environmental health director for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, compared the destruction to the historic breakup floods in Eagle in 2009 and Galena in 2013. Many homes in Circle were affected, with some being carried away or damaged beyond repair.
Essential infrastructure and buildings have also been heavily impacted, with the community currently lacking electricity. Efforts are being made to restore power, with the Alaska Energy Authority planning to send generators to temporarily power the village. The community well will need to be disinfected, though a full water storage tank ensures the availability of safe drinking water.
In Southwest Alaska, the Kuskokwim River faced a major ice jam stretching 24 km (15 miles), which triggered significant flooding in the communities of Red Devil and Crooked Creek.
Aerial footage from the Alaska Region NWS depicted the scale of the floods, with numerous riverside homes swallowed up by the floodwaters. The force of the rushing water was so great that it managed to rip some houses from their foundations. In spite of the calamity, all residents of Crooked Creek were reported safe, and the American Red Cross was on-site to provide shelter and aid to those affected by the floods.
Schools in Glennallen, situated about 305 km (190 miles) northeast of Anchorage, were closed again on Tuesday, May 16, due to ongoing flooding from heavy snowmelt runoff into creeks. The public sewer system has also been shut down as the town faces the same challenges that have struck multiple Alaska communities along rivers and creeks during the spring breakup.
Local authorities have installed Porta-Potties around the town and are urging residents to limit water usage. Although water covered a section of the Glenn Highway on Monday, the road remains open. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) field office in the area is currently flooded, with electricity and sewage systems down, and the office is closed until further notice.
Communities downstream on the Yukon River, such as Fort Yukon, are also facing threats from ice jam flooding. In Southwest Alaska, late-season snowfall has temporarily halted aerial monitoring of the lower Kuskokwim River, with communities from Kalskag to Bethel at the mouth of the river expecting ice jam flooding in the coming days.
1 Ice jams, snowmelt result in catastrophic flooding in Alaska – AccuWeather – May 16, 2023
2 Flooding closes schools and shuts down sewer system in Glennallen as high waters continue to inundate Alaska communities – Alaska Public Media – May 16, 2023
Featured image credit: NWS Fairbanks
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