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Kuskokwim breakup starts in Nikolai

Breakup on the Kuskokwim has begun in the upper-river village of Nikolai, while some other communities report snowmelt and thinning river ice.

Johnse Ostman is a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage, and led the first Kuskokwim community river breakup conference call on Monday (April 22).

“It's really important for us to hear from you what you're seeing while you're out there,” Ostman said. “We do a lot of analysis based on models and satellite imagery and photographs. But really, the best information we get is from you in the community.”

Observers from Nikolai initially reported early breakup at the end of last week (around April 18 or 19). On the call, residents from communities lower on the Kuskokwim River reported areas of graying or running water along the edges of the river. In Aniak, an observer reported open spots on the slough that flows past the community.

Ostman said the conditions this year on the Kuskokwim, and from the middle Yukon down to the coast, are pointing to a slightly delayed breakup compared to the historic average (between one and four days late) with a potential for flooding.

“When we look at the combined — the snowpack is sort of above-average snowpack, and maybe just a slightly thinner ice but cooler temperatures, it does kind of cause us to trend to thinking of a more dynamic breakup,” Ostman said. “Meaning that we have a higher likelihood for flooding in some of these communities, as opposed to the thermal breakup where we're just melting the ice and mushing out.”

The National Weather Service’s Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center and the state Emergency Operations Center host the calls to receive community reports about river conditions in the lead-up to daily RiverWatch flights that start at the end of April. The calls also encourage individuals and communities to prepare for ice jam or snowmelt floods.

Desiree Chambers with the state Emergency Operations Center said preparation can involve a lot of little steps.

“That means a community go bag, something that you can grab in a hurry and leave with some food, water, important documents,” Chambers said. “We’re talking: any important papers you have that if they got wet, it would be very difficult to replace driver's licenses, your tribal identification, proof of ownership of a home or vehicle.”

She said steps to prepare for a potential flood can include reviewing personal and community emergency plans, preparing food and supplies and storing them in watertight containers, taking photos of property, and securing vehicles or tanks that could float away. Anyone with questions or who needs help can call the state EOC at 907-428-7100, she said.

On the first Yukon River community breakup call of the year, held on Tuesday (April 23), Craig Johnson with the National Weather Service explained that April is a critical month for determining what sort of impacts breakup may have on communities. And so far, the slow warming trend of recent weeks bodes well.

“So far, we've seen these slow snow melt and then the snow and ice decay which has improved our ice conditions for breakup,” Johnson said.

Community members reported the beginnings of ice rot in many middle Yukon communities. Johnson noted that breakup started in Whitehorse on the Canadian side of the border, but that little else has shifted for other Yukon communities so far.

Breakup predictions can shift as the weather changes and as traditional breakup dates get closer, so the Kuskokwim and Yukon River breakup watch leaders encourage communities and residents to reach out and stay connected to the weekly calls, local VHF radio and community radio stations.

The Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center will host Kuskokwim and Yukon River community breakup calls throughout breakup season, and will start running RiverWatch flights next week.

The next community call for the Kuskokwim is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Monday, April 29. The next call for the Yukon is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Tuesday, April 30.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.
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