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Ice jams move but flooding concerns remain along Alaska's Yukon, Kuskokwim rivers

Sean Doogan
Flooding in Circle, May 19 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Flooding in Circle, May 19 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
A damaged cabin after flooding in Circle, May 19, 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Ice chunks washed up on shore in Circle after the Yukon River flooded the town on May 19.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Ice washed up on shore after major flooding hit Circle, May 19, 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
An aerial view of flooding in Circle, May 19 2013.
Courtesy Alaska State Trooper Andrew Neason
An aerial view of flooding in Circle, May 19, 2013.
Courtesy Alaska State Trooper Andrew Neason
Flooding hit Circle on Sunday, May 19, affecting all homes and most of the buildings in the Interior community.
Courtesy Scott Lindsay
An aerial view of flooding in Circle, May 19, 2013
Courtesy Alaska State Trooper Andrew Neason
An aerial view of flooding damage in Circle, May 19, 2013
Courtesy Scott Lindsay
An aerial view of buildings flooded in Circle on May 19, 2013
Courtesy Alaska State Trooper Andrew Neason
An aerial view of damage to the Interior community of Circle, hit by major flooding on May 19, 2013
Courtesy Scott Lindsay
Flooding and ice breaking up damages buildings in the Yukon river village of Eagle. May 17, 2013
Courtesy Ed Christensen
Flooding and ice breaking up damages buildings in the Yukon river village of Eagle. May 17, 2013
Pat Sanders / NPS
Massive ice chunks destroy a boat launch in Eagle in mid-May 2013.
Pat Sanders | NPS
Flooding in Circle, May 19 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Flooding damage in Circle, May 19, 2013.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt
Damage in Circle, May 19, 2013 after the Yukon River flooded the Interior community.
Courtesy Kurt Schmidt

Warmer weather is loosening ice jams along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, and, for now, easing concerns about more spring flooding.

In Fort Yukon, water levels continued to drop Thursday after an ice jam downriver from the Interior community began to break apart overnight. Alaska Homeland Security spokesman, Jeremy Zidek, said the movement of the ice jam, accompanied by lowering river levels allowed officials to cancel the flood warning issued for the community. State observers were flying over the Ft. Yukon area and the Kuskokwim River on Thursday afternoon, looking for potential trouble spots.

The ice damming is continuing on a smaller scale downstream from Ft. Yukon, and could threaten the communities of Beaver, Stevens Village, Rampart and Tanana. A flood watch remained in effect for those areas as of Thursday afternoon.

“We are getting reports that the ice is rotting quickly near Rampart, “ said Zidek.

The sudden warm-up remains a concern for residents and state emergency officials because it could quickly increase the river volume as ice, snow and meltwater pour into the Yukon.

“The best scenario, to avoid flooding along the Yukon is a slow, but steady melting of the river ice and surrounding snow,” said David Streubel, a hydrologist at the Pacific River Forecast Center.

The improved outlook is in stark contrast to earlier in the week, when large ice dams caused major flooding around Circle, about 55 miles upriver from Ft. Yukon. The Red Cross is still helping people from 16 homes that were flooded over the weekend. The state says seven homes in Circle were completely destroyed by the flooding, another nine were damaged. Displaced residents are being given food, clothing, dog food, and clean water. The Red Cross has set up a shelter there, but most people affected by the flooding are staying with friends or family.

While not nearly as bad as flooding in 2009 that wiped out a large portion of the communty of Eagle on the Yukon River and inundated Akiak along the Kuskokwim, the power of the rivers was easy to see this spring.

“The ice jam we had near Ft. Yukon created a massive back-up of water that was estimated to be 30 miles long, and 7 miles wide,” said Zidek. “That water seems to be moving through the river now, though,” Zidek said.

On the Kuskokwim River, water levels began to drop overnight Wednesday, May 22, in Crooked Creek. The state also cancelled a flood warning for that area. While villages downstream are not out of the woods yet, when it comes to possible flooding on the Kuskokwim, the danger is subsiding, for now.

“Things are looking better on both the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers,” said Streubel. A team of hydrologists and emergency officials, known as the “Riverwatch Team,” is overflying the Kuskokwim, downstream from Crooked Creek, looking for potential flooding trouble spots. So far, they are seeing signs the river is beginning to flow more freely. But that could change.

“If another ice jam forms on either the Yukon or Kuskokwim Rivers, we could see more flooding, so that is something we are constantly on the lookout for,” said Zidek.

The spring river break-up is detailed online as it plays out. The Pacific River Forecast Center maintains a map of ice conditions and flood warnings across the state.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com