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Kuskokwim River ice and snow conditions are degrading along the lower river as temperatures warm

 The Kuskokwim River ice degrades in front of Bethel, Alaska, pictured here on April 17, 2022.
Petra Harpak
The Kuskokwim River ice degrades in front of Bethel, Alaska, pictured here on April 17, 2022.

Kuskokwim River communities are preparing for breakup amid warming spring temperatures. Ice and snow conditions along the lower river are degrading faster than along the upper river. River residents called into a virtual roundtable hosted by the National Weather Service on April 19 to share their river ice observations.

In Napaskiak, resident Earl Samuelson said that the Napaskiak Slough is deteriorating fast.

“The sides are starting to show weakness and higher water in the evenings along the sides. It could be tidal activity, and also some drainage,” Samuelson said.

Near Napaskiak, the Kuskokwim River ice remains intact, but continues to grow slushier. Samuelson said that the ice has not yet begun to lift from increased snow melt raising water levels.

Farther upriver, Samuelson said that the Kwethluk and Kiseralik Rivers have both opened. On a recent flight, he noticed heavy snowpack still in the mountains.

“Lot of snow yet in the Kilbucks, and the Alaska Range was full of snow all the way back to the Holitna,” Samuelson said.

National Weather Service Hydrologist Celine Van Breukelen said that the snowpack in the Alaska Range is 144% of its average amount. That’s similar to last year’s snowpack. All that snow has yet to melt and flow into the Kuskokwim River.

In Bethel, resident Mark Leary said that the river ice is thicker than recent years. Last week, on April 14, his ice measurement in front of Bethel read 40 inches.

“Of course, it’s not what we call 'real ice' anymore. The depth of the needle ice is getting more and more every day,” Leary said.

Farther upriver, the ice remains strong.

A caller who identified herself as Julia in the community of Crooked Creek reported measuring 54 inches of ice on the Kuskokwim River last week.

“That’s not including the snow on top. We had to break through about a foot and a half of snow before we got to the thickness,” she said.

She said that water lines the shore and covers the ice road. Meanwhile, the ice over Crooked Creek is degrading and has formed open holes.

In Sleetmute, a caller who identified herself as Susan described the area around her village as “still very wintery.” Last week, on April 12, she said that high school students measured the river ice at 33 inches thick.

“And it’s just white ice all the way down. It’s not candled, or broken up, or anything yet. It’s still pretty solid,” she said.

The snow cover in Sleetmute is also thick, measuring 32 inches in front of her house, with drifts reaching over 4 feet. Though warming temperatures are beginning to turn it mushy.

Lastly, in McGrath, a caller who identified himself as Dial said that the snow outside his office measures 30 inches, and a foot of snow still covers the river ice.

State officials are asking Kuskokwim River communities to prepare for breakup, and asking community leaders to review and update their breakup emergency preparedness plans.

The National Weather Service is planning its first River Watch flight of the season on April 30.

Anna Rose MacArthur is the KYUK News Director. She has worked at KYUK since 2015 and previously worked at KNOM in Nome, Alaska.
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