Weather Service warns of flooding along the Kuskokwim River

Weekend rains softened Kuskokwim River ice in front of Napaimute, pictured here on April 20, 2020. (Ben Leary)

The ice cleared on the Kuskokwim River above Nikolai on April 21, but an ice jam is developing 24 miles downstream at the North Fork. Residents of Nikolai are watching it carefully and preparing for possible flooding.

Locals upriver noticed a lot of logs in the Kuskokwim this spring, which may be good news for communities in the lower Kuskokwim. It has been about five years since any timber showed up in the lower river.

Ice in the Aniak River also went out on April 21. Smaller tributaries have also broken up. Ice on Crooked Creek, the waterway that gives the community of Crooked Creek its name, flowed out over the weekend.

As breakup continues, the National Weather Service is predicting ice jams and flooding along the river in the coming weeks. It’s asking residents to help spread the word on ice and snow conditions, and to prepare their homes and communities to mitigate flood damage. Ice jams and flooding occur when sudden warm weather quickly melts snow, rushing it into a river, cracking and buckling hard ice. The ice forms a dam, and water pools behind it.

In a teleconference on April 20, residents along the river reported brown tundra, deep overflow, and ice softened by weekend rains. Much of the Kuskokwim Basin’s low elevation snow has melted in the past two weeks, but a lot of snow remains higher up in the mountains.

At the beginning of April, the National Weather Service reported snowfall one-and-a-half to two times above the 30-year average in the mountains surrounding the Kuskokwim River headwaters.

The river ice, though beginning to soften on top, remains thick. A cold winter, plunging dozens of degrees below zero over several weeks, developed stronger ice than the river has seen in years. It allowed a network of communities to plow the longest ice road ever, about 355 miles. Just last week, residents reported river ice 3 feet to over 5 feet thick along the Kuskokwim.

The National Weather Service plans to fly its annual River Watch flights to keep eyes on the changing conditions. It will avoid landing in communities to respect pandemic-related travel restrictions, but it can’t be everywhere at once and is asking for help. Pilots, drone operators, and anyone with a camera are encouraged to post pictures of the Kuskokwim River to the Facebook page “Kuskokwim River Ice and Road Conditions Winter 2020.”

The National Weather Service and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation are asking communities along the river to designate facilities for flood evacuation. Homeowners are also encouraged to begin preparing their houses for potential flooding.

Bethel’s average breakup day is May 9. The National Weather Service predicts the ice to open in front of Bethel three to five days ahead of that date.

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