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Northwest Alaska slogs through week of unusually heavy rain

Ben Anderson
Wayne Hall photo

You may have missed it, but it’s been raining in Northwest Alaska this past week. A lot. Some areas have received a third of their annual rainfall in a few days, rivers levels are setting records, and rainfall is set to continue through the weekend. And all the wet weather has saturated the tundra and spilled into rivers, leading to worries about widespread flooding.

Heavy rain is perhaps more manageable than heavy snowfall -- like that which crippled the Prince William Sound community of Cordova for several days this past winter. But rain comes with its own challenges. Despite that, residents and workers in the region sounded mostly unconcerned on Friday morning after a week of steady rainfall.

But the worst may be yet to come.

According to Ed Plumb, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service forecast office in Fairbanks, the continued heavy rain has saturated the soft, mossy tundra, meaning the rain now has nowhere to go but toward the ocean.

“The tundra can act a bit like a sponge,” Plumb said. “Eventually, the sponge gets saturated and the water starts running into rivers and streams.”

And that rain is expected to continue until Monday, increasing the threat of the tundra reaching its breaking point and seeing overflow spilling into those rivers and streams. Plumb alternately refers to the weather pattern hovering over the Bering and Chukchi seas as a “freight train of weather systems just kind of hanging over that area,” and “a conveyor belt of moisture feeding into Northwestern Alaska.”

It’s already started to impact some rivers. One, the Wulik River, which runs from the Delong Mountains at the west end of the Brooks Range to the community of Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea, has seen a rise in river levels unlike anything recorded before.

According to the National Weather Service’s river gauge on the Wulik, the river height spiked to 15.3 feet on Thursday, the highest level ever recorded, topping the previous record by more than 3 feet. The gauge was installed in 1985.

Also draining out near Kivalina is that village’s namesake river. Kivalina itself is located on a barrier island, with the Chukchi Sea on one side and a lagoon on the other. When the lagoon, fed by the Wulik and Kivalina rivers, can’t empty into the sea fast enough, flooding may follow.

That’s what happened on Friday, when water came up and reached some houses foundations, as seen in this graphic from the National Weather Service.

Residents of the community of about 400 didn’t sound too concerned when reached by Alaska Dispatch on Friday morning, though. One resident had heard that there had been some water approaching houses, but wasn’t aware that the rain was expected to continue through the weekend. Another said that she had heard that the water in the lagoon was on the rise, but hadn’t been to see it herself.

A flood warning is in effect until 4 p.m. Sunday, as the Wulik River remained above record levels on Friday afternoon -- with rain continuing to fall. The Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management was also monitoring the situation.

Elsewhere in the region, Noatak, which sits near the Noatak River about 50 miles east of Kivalina, was also watching the water levels rise. That community of about 550 people sits above the river, according to Carol Wesley, president of the Noatak Search and Rescue Team.

“We’re fortunately up on high ground, and the river has a high bank,” Wesley said. “Boat owners are moving their boats closer to town in case it rises more, but that’s about it.”

Wesley said that she didn’t think the river would spill over its banks, and she’d never seen that happen in a lifetime of living in the community. Even the village’s gravel roads were in good shape, she said.

“A few puddles here and there, but not way out of the ordinary,” she said. More people were (more) upset about the rain interrupting the berry-picking season than the threat of flooding.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say too much rain,” Wesley said. “Rain, rain, rain. It’s been like a week since some people went out picking.”

An ‘extraordinary event’

Back in Fairbanks, hydrologist Ed Plumb said that they were continuing to monitor the potential flooding in the area. It’s been unusually dry in Fairbanks so far this August, which stands in stark contrast to the events in the Northwest. The Interior city is so far experiencing it’s third-driest August in the last 40 years.

He said that the levels of rainfall in the Northwest had been relatively normal so far this summer, which makes the recent drenching stand out even more.

“This is an extraordinary event, having this much rainfall over such a short period of time,” Plumb said. “It’s actually kind of ironic, because the Wulik River had record low flows for periods this summer, and we just went up to the complete opposite end of the scale.”

Much of the region averages only 15-20 inches of rain annually, Plumb said. In the last four days, Red Dog Mine, a zinc and lead mine located in the foothills of the Brooks Range, has seen more than six inches -- about a third of its annual rainfall.

That made the Red Dog work site sloppy and muddy, but otherwise it was business as usual, according to Wayne Hal, the mine’s manager of community and public relations.

“The mine is operating normally, though it does affect our operation in some minimal ways,” Hall said Friday. Perhaps the most significant issue, he said, has been the inability for planes to arrive at or depart from the site due to the bad weather. Normally, employees work two-week or four-week shifts and fly out on Wednesdays for time off. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.

“It just causes frustration for somebody when they’re looking to get home to their families,” Hall said.

There’s an end in sight to the perpetual downpour, though the region will still have to suffer through a weekend filled with rain. Plumb said that the rainfall should ease up Monday, but another wet weather system could move through the area as early as Wednesday of next week.

In the meantime, locals and authorities will continue to watch the water rise and hope for the best.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com