Ice jam floods continue to plague Alaska river communities

Buckland flooding
Flooding in Buckland, Alaska on May 18, 2023. (National Weather Service photo)

Ice jams caused major flooding in Buckland on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

The weather service said the Buckland River had flooded 80% of the Northwest Arctic Borough community, and residents were using boats to get around.

As of the 2020 census, 535 people lived in Buckland. An aerial photo shows the swollen river flowing across a bend and through the community.

A large ice jam on the Yukon

Meanwhile, a major ice jam was holding in place on a remote section of the middle Yukon River, upstream of the village of Ruby. National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb flew over the ice jam on Thursday.

“We saw about 50 miles of packed-in ice behind the ice jam that wasn’t moving, and there was extensive overland flooding for several miles along the Yukon River — for several miles away from the bank,” he said.

Plumb says isolated cabins and fish camps were surrounded by flood water in the area where the Nowitna River flows into the Yukon.

“It’s creating a giant lake where it’s backing up the Yukon River water,” he said.

Plumb says water was rising at Tanana, about 40 miles upstream of the end of the jam, but it wasn’t clear if that was due to the jam or due to a broader slug of breakup water and ice flushing down the river.

In a flood advisory that’s in effect until 12:15 p.m. Saturday, the National Weather Service warned that people who live in the area should “stay alert and be prepared to take action.”

Floodwaters recede at Glenallen

In the Glenallen area, floodwaters caused by snow melt have significantly receded. Incident commander Jason Severs redits actions by the Alaska Department of Transportation.

“DOT has brought in a contractor with a couple of pumps. They are pumping the water out of Glennallen, downtown Glennallen,” he said. “They’re also installing two additional culverts to Moose Creek.”

Moose Creek and its tributaries are the source of the flooding, which started on May 12 when a rapid warm-up began melting a heavy snowpack. Severs says that at the flood’s peak, water was 6 to 8 feet deep in places.

“It has flooded the basement of the LIO office, the community library. Its flooded fire station completely out,” he said. “BLM has buildings that are underwater. I believe there are 6 homes that have damage. Several businesses and non-profits also have water damage.”

Severs says a community wastewater system damaged by the flood is back online but at reduced capacity. He says flood waters have largely drained from most of Glennallen proper, but the west end of town was still underwater on Thursday. 

Meanwhile, Severs says the community is getting help.

“There are some private contractors that have already come out to look at som of the private residences. The state has come out and they are doing some initial assessments. The American Red Cross is here. They’re offering water, food, cleaning supplies,” he said.

Severs says Glennallen is in line for state and federal assistance.  He anticipates the recovery process could take months.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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