Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration after ice jams and snow melt led to significant flooding in several communities along the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers this past weekend.
A major ice jam on the Yukon River, which originates in the coastal mountains of Canada and flows nearly 2,000 miles northwest into the Bering Sea, has created catastrophic flooding in several riverfront communities.
“Ice jams are caused when ice breaks up on the river, begins to flow downstream but then gets ‘stuck’ and acts as a dam. This causes the water in the river to rise, usually quite rapidly, and gives very little notice to the flood threat,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Tom Kines said.
This time of the year is known as the “spring breakup” in Alaska, and while that may sound like the name of a rom-com movie, FEMA officials say it’s no laughing matter, especially if you live in The Last Frontier. In April and May, most of the river ice in Alaska thaws and breaks up into pieces. If it melts too quickly, it can result in ice jams and heavy flooding in riverfront communities.
According to Kines, the spring breakup was slightly delayed this year due to cooler temperatures in April. However, recent rain and temperatures above freezing in eastern and north-central Alaska have jump-started the annual ice breakup.
The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Fairbanks warned in late April that this year’s spring breakup would create significant flooding for riverfront communities. The agency said the outlook was based on observed snowpack, ice thickness reports and seasonal temperature forecasts.
NWS hydrologist Ed Plumb told the Alaska Public Media that 80 to 90 miles of bank-to-bank ice running down the Yukon River is what caused the water to rise significantly in the eastern Alaska town of Eagle this past weekend.
“The road between Eagle and Eagle Village, which goes upriver, along the river, was completely covered with ice and water, and there were some structures to that were surrounded by ice and water,” Plumb told Alaska Public Media.
Just as fast as the water came rushing into the town of Eagle, the water went rushing out Saturday. According to Plumb, roads are still impassable because giant ice chunks were left behind as the floodwater receded.
As the ice flowed downstream on the Yukon River, other riverfront towns were at risk for significant flooding. Nearly 109 miles northwest of Eagle, in the town of Circle and ahead of the ice jam, river levels rose nearly 10 feet in a matter of 30 minutes.
“We are saddened to see the damages from the ice jam flooding in Circle over the weekend. Our thoughts go out to those that have lost their homes or property during this devastating flood. Here are photos take by our River Watch team on Sun after the water receded,” NWS Alaska said in a statement on Twitter.
Photos shared by the NWS showed several homes in the community of Circle inundated with water. The floodwaters were so high that only the tops of the trucks could be seen.
By Sunday afternoon, the water levels had receded in Circle, but the NWS warned that standing water and large ice chunks will remain a threat to the community throughout the week.
Alaska state troopers said all Circle residents were accounted for, and no one was injured.
In Southwest Alaska, a 15-mile ice jam on the Kuskokwim River led to significant flooding in Red Devil and Crooked Creek communities this past weekend.
As the torrent of water inundated the small town, located roughly 275 miles northwest of Anchorage, residents were forced to seek shelter in the local school, which sits at a higher elevation than surrounding homes, Alaska’s News Source reported.
A drone video shared by the Alaska Region NWS showed the floodwaters overtaking multiple riverfront homes as the broken ice flowed down the river. According to KTUU in Anchorage, some houses were torn off their foundations due to the force of the rushing water.
Alaska Public Media reported that everyone in Crooked Creek was accounted for, and the American Red Cross was on site providing shelter and helping the residents who were impacted by the floods.
Multiple flood warnings and watches remained in effect across Alaska as of Tuesday.
Produced in association with AccuWeather
Edited by Alberto Arellano and Joseph Hammond