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Dry, warm spring lessens flooding danger on Interior Alaska rivers

Sean Doogan
Yukon River flooding in May of 2013. The mighty Yukon River isn't causing flooding woes this spring -- and Alaskans living on its banks and state hydrologists hope it stays that way. Pat Sanders / NPS

Unlike last year and in 2009, the Yukon River and its many tributaries are shedding their ice in a much more orderly and gentle manner this year. Alaska's longest river begins its 3,190-mile trek to the Bering Sea in British Columbia, Canada. It serves a lifeline and the main means of transportation for the dozens of villages dotted along its shores. But the river showed Interior and Northern Alaska its ugly side in 2013 as high water combined with ice jams to flood several towns and villages. But the mighty Yukon isn't causing trouble this spring, so far. Both hydrologists and local residents hope it stays that way.

Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center chief hydrologist Robin Radlein said that the dry conditions have kept water levels low in Interior Alaska.  Combine that with warm spring weather -- temperatures in Eagle soared into the 60s this week -- and the river ice is melting rather than being forced downstream by water pressure, something that can lead to flooding. Radlein said it doesn’t appear there is much chance for flooding on the Yukon, from Circle to the village of Tanana. But, as with most things weather-related in Alaska, that could change.

"You could always find some circumstances where you find a jam where you don’t expect it, but it is on pace to move out without a high risk of flooding," Radlein said.

In Eagle -- a town of about 85 residents on the banks of the Yukon near the Alaska-Canada border -- the ice went out late Thursday night, starting about 11 p.m. But unlike in 2009 and again in 2013, the flow of ice and water didn't inundate the town. In fact, it was such a gradual event that many people slept through it.

"There's been no flooding or damage," Eagle resident John Borg said. "It's been a very mild break-up and has come in fits and starts."

By contrast, the Tanana River, which runs 584 miles from Northway to its intersection with the Yukon, two miles upstream of the village of Tanana, is mostly open. But the Yukon River in Tanana is still locked up. Hydrologists said they expect the ice there to go out by Sunday at the earliest.

"Part of the problem is that where the river still has ice in place, there is not enough water coming in from snow melt to push it and move it mechanically," Radlein said.

With fresh memories of the 2009 and 2013 floods -- which sent huge chunks of ice and massive amounts of water into Interior villages, knocking homes off their foundation and sweeping many of them into the water -- Interior Alaska residents are enjoying a more normal break-up.

And deteriorating ice isn't the only sign that spring has broken winter's icy grip on the region. "I heard a robin yesterday," Borg said. "That pretty much confirms it's spring."