Skip to main Content
Rural Alaska

Yukon River communities brace for earlier-than-expected breakup

As temperatures around the state start to warm, some residents living on Alaska's major rivers are preparing for another season of river ice breakup.

They're hoping this year might be milder than last year, when floods caused havoc in communities along the Yukon River. The towns of Eagle, Circle and Galena were especially hard hit when ice jams stopped the flow of water downriver until it spilled over the banks.

The National Weather Service breakup summary said flood potential is expected to be low to moderate statewide as rivers around the state begin to break up.

While very little ice has gone out on any Alaska rivers, National Weather Service hydrologist David Streubel said the agency is getting more pictures of rotting river ice -- ice that's dark and covered with varying levels of water -- especially on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

The National Weather Service predicts the ice will "go out" -- when the ice finally breaks up enough to head downriver -- over the next few days on both of those rivers, the two largest in the state and home to dozens of rural communities. That's about five or six days earlier than average, he said.

Consequently, Streubel said teams from the National Weather Service deployed on Monday out to Eagle on the Yukon River and Aniak on the Kuskokwim in preparation for breakup.

According to NWS data, the average date of breakup on the Yukon River in Eagle is May 5. For Aniak, it's May 8.

Contributing to the earlier breakup are consistently warmer-than-normal temperatures in the region, Streubel said. Though that comes with a caveat -- while it's been warm during the day, temperatures have dropped at night, helping to maintain a steady snowmelt, he said.

"We're not getting that big surge of snowmelt that can occur like last year and cause a problem," he said.

Also helping is the general lack of snow in many parts of the state. Western Alaska reported below-average snowpack. Streubel noted there may be some concern in Eagle, since that region and parts of the Yukon Territory were the exception to the statewide snowfall trend this winter, with average or above-average amounts of snow.

Prepping in Circle

In Eagle, longtime resident John Borg said most of the snow in the community has melted and that ice on the river is also slowly melting, giving people some sense of relief. They've had very little snow since the beginning of the year. Only a total of 2 inches have fallen since the end of January. With temperatures warming during the day and freezing at night, the water level seems low, he said.

Borg suspects the ice will go out May 1, much earlier than last year's late breakup of May 17. Still, Borg's guess is no sure thing.

"I've only been watching it for 45 years, but I've never guessed the date of breakup," he said.

For the community of Circle, which was also inundated with flooding in 2013, the tribal council has been working to make sure everyone's ready in case of a repeat.

Circle Native Community Second Chief Tonya Carroll said fliers went out last week reminding people to stock up on supplies and medication in the event of a flood. They also included reminders on mitigation routes and preventive measures. The council has worked to make sure elders are prepared for anything.

On Monday afternoon, there were blue skies and temperatures in the mid-40s in the community of just over 100 that's 158 miles downriver from Eagle. Carroll said the ice has already started to go out on nearby Birch Creek, a 150-mile long tributary of the Yukon. She said in most years the ice goes out on the Tanana River first, followed by Birch Creek and then finally the Yukon. Last year, with all the flooding, it was the Yukon that went first in surprising fashion, cutting its own channel across the island that separates the slough in front of Circle from the main channel of the river.

Carroll is optimistic that based on the weather this year, and the normalcy of the other river breakups, that things might go smoothly in Circle.

"But we don't know," she added. "Nobody ever knows."

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.