The Kuskokwim River in Southwest Alaska is experiencing a rare November breakup. Temperatures were cold in early November but over the past several days, temperatures have reached into the 40s and even the 50s in some places along the river.
Celina Van Breukelen is a hydrologist with the National Weather Service and the River Forecast Center in Anchorage. She says they’ve had reports of the ice moving at Napaimute and Aniak.
“There seems to be some sort of a localized breakup at some locations on the river. We don’t expect it to have a flood impact. We don’t think that the ice is thick enough or that the water levels are high enough to really create a flood event, more of just some local breaking up that’s happening,” said Van Breukelen.
The situation has thousands of residents in a transportation standstill as they wait for the Kuskokwim to freeze into a safe road for travel. Van Breukelen says the forecast calls for temperatures to begin dropping below freezing at night and that should slow down melting.
“That should help slow that process down a lot. Not expecting to see a lot of precip that’s going to add a lot of precip that’s into the river and there should not be a whole lot of snow to melt, so not expecting to see much more input into the river over the next few days,” said Van Breukelen.
Mark Leary, who lives in Napaimute, says this is the third time he’s seen a November breakup – besides this year, it’s happened in 2002 and 2010. He says it’s different than a spring one, especially how it sounds.
“It’s real hard and it sounds like rocks moving. There’s no needle ice like in the springtime to soften some of the sound. Rocks tumbling down a hillside, rocks gritting, rocks grinding. The difference now as opposed to a spring breakup, the night is long you know. You don’t know what’s happening during the night, you know it’s like 14 hours of darkness and you don’t know what’s going on – you can hear it but you don’t know and it’s a little bit scary,” said Leary.
Leary says although the National Weather Service is not calling for flooding now, if ice jams form near villages and re-freeze, it could mean trouble this spring.
“That’s what happened at Crooked Creek in 2010, it broke up in November right around Thanksgiving and then it jammed a few miles below their village and refroze and boy, that jam was hard as a rock. So the next spring, 2011 that jam couldn’t melt as fast as the regular ice. And that’s what caused the new jam in the spring of 2011 that hit Crooked Creek really hard,” said Leary.
A pilot flew the Kuskokwim River today to assess the extent of the breakup and reports an ice jam below Aniak. National Weather Service officials say some local surges of water are expected as the ice runs. They say people should move belongings and equipment away from the river, but they do not expect high enough water to impact homes or roads. Alaska State Troopers are warning people not to travel on the river.