As Alaska faces an increased risk of spring breakup flooding this year, scientists are asking residents to share photos documenting major rivers’ progress from ice to water to help them predict with more accuracy where flooding might occur.
The call for submissions is part of a citizen science program from the University of Alaska Fairbanks called Fresh Eyes on Ice, which originally began as a way to get kids involved with science by measuring ice thickness through their classrooms.
This year, for nearly all of Alaska’s largest rivers — including the Yukon, Tanana, Kuskokwim and Koyukuk rivers — there is an above-average potential for spring flooding, due to below-average temperatures in April throughout most of the state, which delayed melting and increased the risk of ice jam flooding.
The increased risk has made the project seem especially urgent this year, said Katie Spellman, a UAF professor who helps run the program.
Fresh Eyes on Ice first took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, when National Weather Service forecasters were unable to land in villages as part of an annual River Watch program that allows them to monitor breakup each year, Spellman said. Forecasters asked community members to submit observations to help fill in the gaps.
Now, the project garners photo submissions from more than 1,000 people each year, and “really improved the weather service’s ability to have eyes on the river,” Spellman said.
When people submit photos of river conditions — which they can do through the university’s webpage, via a smartphone app developed by NASA or on social media — they’re asked to include the name of the river and the conditions they’re observing.
This week, the group’s Facebook page was active with photos of fresh snow on river ice, ice chunks floating in melted spots and pops of glacier-blue water around solid ice.
“Breakup is coming, but for the time being, we sit and wait,” wrote one poster from the Yukon River community of Eagle, near the Alaska-Canada border.
The photos are sent to the National Weather Service, which uses the photos “to actually see what’s going on on the ground,” Spellman said. Recurring reports of conditions from the same river, even if nothing new or exciting has happened, are extremely valuable, she added.
“This is stuff that can’t be seen from satellite,” she said.
Karin Bodony, a biologist and educator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Galena on the Yukon River, said that she’s always a little anxious this time of year.
In late May 2013, one of the worst dynamic flooding years in recent history, an ice jam at Bishop Rock blocked up the Yukon, flooding every building in Galena.
“I think everyone who was here in 2013 worries every spring. It’s just part of the post-traumatic stress we all carry from having gone through that,” she said.
She remembers the 3 feet of water that filled her office during the flood, and always tries to keep important documents on the upper shelves, and keep vehicles on higher ground.
Bodony contributes photos and observations to the Fresh Eyes on Ice page. She prepares for a worst-case flooding scenario the same way each year, regardless of whether it’s predicted to be a heavy flooding year. It’s just hard to know what will happen.
“If it were easy to predict, we’d make a lot of money,” Bodony said.
Spellman said that for community members who participate in the citizen science project, there’s a double impact — it can help increase participants’ interest in science and data, and change the way they view their role in their community, especially for kids.
“The act of doing real science has a benefit,” Spellman said. “It makes them feel like agents of change in their communities.”
Angela Hayden, a teacher in Sleetmute, a small village along the upper Kuskokwim, has been taking her students down to the river weekly since January to measure ice thickness.
“It’s been super helpful for the kids to understand that they can actually track the data and make valid predictions rather than just kind of guessing,” she said.
Also in Sleetmute, Susan Hubbard, 66, has been on the lookout for signs of breakup flooding for the last two decades. Things she keeps an eye on: snowpack depth, ice thickness, spring temperatures and a late breakup.
Hubbard started volunteering with the state’s River Watch program after becoming a school principal — she’s retired now — as a way to help her friends and neighbors stay connected to what’s happening with breakup statewide. She still sits in on weekly calls with the state and the National Weather Service, and shares her measurements of snowpack depth and other observations.
“We just pass along what we’re seeing out our window,” said Hubbard, who’s weathered a few years of flooding since moving to Sleetmute in the 1980s, including last year. She said the worst floods always seem to happen on Mother’s Day.
But as long as there’s no flooding, she looks forward to witnessing breakup each year. Everyone in town will call each other up when the river breaks, and head to the riverbank to watch and listen to the water and ice flowing by, she said. It’s dramatic to witness.
“The ice and water are slamming against each other, and one big piece will push another big piece up on the beach and then sometimes it’ll roll over and flush down, and sometimes it’ll come on up and get up on land,” Hubbard said. “It’s just one of those things in nature that you hope that everybody gets to see at least once.”
She said that while forecasters are warning of increased flood risk this year, based on her own observations, she doesn’t think it’s likely Sleetmute will experience a lot of flooding this year.
Hayden isn’t so sure. She has her own plane, and has been flying up and down the river in recent days taking pictures of what’s happening so far. Water along the edges of the river is an early sign of breakup. There’s still a lot of snow on the ground, but the river levels are relatively low.
“It’s so many factors,” she said. “Every year, it’s really just kind of, wait and see.”