What’s going on with flooding in Alaska? A meteorologist explains.

Crooked Creek flooding
Parts of the runway and access roads at the Crooked Creek airport are underwater, seen from the air. (Kyle Van Perseum/Alaska-Pacific Forecast Center)

Ice on Alaska rivers is breaking up and causing jams in some locations, notably in the eastern Interior and Western Alaska.

That means active flooding in some places and warnings about possible flooding in others.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Monday issued a state disaster declaration for communities on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers that will make them eligible for financial assistance.

Meteorologist Mike Ottenweller with the Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center says it’s been a dynamic breakup so far, after a cool April and rapid mid-May warmup.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mike Ottenweller: So we’d kind of been thinking that Eagle might be a potential spot, hotspot, if you will, that would see some jamming. As we got into Friday and Saturday, that’s when we did see some ice jam up just downstream of Eagle. And it backed up a fairly significant ways, which allowed the water then to start to rise in Eagle. Eagle itself, I think, actually did OK. They did have some minor flooding, but all in all, that was really kind of the start of things to come. Once that breakup started to move past Eagle, which was early Saturday, the next community on the Yukon was Circle. It was overnight Saturday night that we started to hear reports from our River Watch team and from the state that water was indeed rising, and rising fairly quickly, through Saturday evening. And then overnight Saturday night was the worst of the high water into Circle. And that’s when we saw things basically crest in that area with water reaching major flood level and potentially setting the all-time historic mark for that community. There was significant damage that was reported out of Circle. We had some homes completely inundated with water. Other homes were actually lifted off their foundation and basically washed downriver a good ways and certainly plenty of other structures, you know, recreational cabins and things like that, that were inundated and effectively destroyed.

RELATED: Breakup brings serious flooding to Yukon and Kuskokwim River communities

Casey Grove: Of course, the Yukon River continues on down from there. And we’re sitting here on on Monday talking about this. What’s the situation now, you know downriver from Eagle and Circle?

MO: Yeah, so we did see some signs of minor flooding further downstream, on Sunday and overnight last night, Sunday into Monday, near Fort Yukon. At this time, Fort Yukon continues to remain under a flood warning. And then we’ve also, just in the last little bit here, issued a flood warning for Stevens Village as well. There’s a pretty significant, basically bank-to-bank section of ice that is now upstream of Stevens Village. We think that it has cleared Beaver, but it is still yet to come, obviously for Stevens Village, downstream a little bit farther. So that is the area that we’re targeting now, as this kind of breakup jam, if you will, the break up front, moves further downstream. It’s Stevens Village that we think is the next one. And then, of course, we’ll just keep going down from there and keeping an eye on communities as we go, looking down toward, you know, basically the Rampart area, and then eventually towards the middle Yukon, where we get toward Tanana and things like that.

CG: Mike, we’re also talking about Western Alaska, and of course, for a lot of places, that means the Kuskokwim River. What’s the situation there?

MO: Yeah, so while the Yukon has been a pretty rough start, the Kuskokwim has also had its fair share of dynamic breakup. Kind of similar timing, still very late compared to normal. You know, we would normally see Crooked Creek breakup on the fourth of May, and here we are in the middle of May talking about it. Saturday night is when we saw a significant river rise for the community of Crooked Creek. That was our first really big impact. Red Devil did also have some river rises, and some, you know, minor flooding and minor impacts. But it was really Crooked Creek that saw the most significant flooding. And in the past couple of days, we were talking about water going into the second story of some homes. All the roads were impassable by vehicle. And so folks out there were, you know, gathering together as a community and using boats to make sure that everybody was safe. And they took refuge inside the school there. But we also have reports of potentially even people sleeping in their boats overnight and really just doing whatever they could to avoid those waters, especially, you know, in the dark period of the day, where it can be even more hazardous to try to navigate what’s going on with an ice jam.

CG: Yeah, that sounds like a pretty sketchy situation. Again, I mean, are there places farther downriver that that you’re looking at that have the potential to flood that maybe have flood watches in effect?

MO: Yeah, so there’s kind of a bad news-good news situation for the Kuskokwim. So leading with the bad news is kind of the more forefront of our concerns, right now, we have a flood warning out for Napaimute, all the way down and into Aniak. And so that’s our area of concern right now. The good news, though, is that once we get past that Aniak area and downstream, we’re starting to see a lot more open water from tributaries that come in from some of the sloughs and the feeder networks into the main river stem. And so that is helping to break up the ice in advance of this breakup front. And so we really have increasing confidence that once the breakup jam gets past Aniak, that we should see things clear out pretty effectively. That’s not to say that all those communities are totally out of the woods. But it’s looking much more open downstream of Aniak than it was, you know, for any of those areas upstream there.

CG: I’ve heard that there’s some flooding going on in Glennallen, but it’s like it’s a different cause and maybe not as bad. But what’s going on there?

MO: Certainly a lot of snow across the state. In general, we were either at average or above average for most locations in terms of snowpack. And Glennallen was no exception. The Copper River basin was above average. With all that water, and given the delayed snow melt spring start that we had this year with such a cold April, that really allowed that snow to hold in place. And now that we’re starting to see temperatures normal for middle of May. With the snow, it’s just really rapidly melting. All that snow, fed into Moose Creek over the weekend. And that then led to Moose Creek kind of getting swollen and pushing out of its banks. And that’s what has now pushed into the Glennallen area and overtop of the Glenn Highway, of course.

CG: Mike, I should ask, I mean, you mentioned some damage to structures earlier, but have you heard anything about, you know, loss of life or injuries from this flooding?

MO: Actually, no, we haven’t. That’s probably one of the things that we’re just really proud of and happy to hear, that and that the communities were prepared and able to work together to help each other out. Because, certainly, there were, you know, some harrowing moments and whatnot, and I’m sure more stories will come out, but it sounds like all the evacuations that took place were just, you know, on the local level and just getting out of harm’s way in the immediate timeframe. So we’re very happy to hear that and hope that continues to be the case through the rest of the spring break up season.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

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