ice in news: yukon river springtime floods

An iceberg that landed in Manuela's "yard"! No wonder entire towns have been smashed to bits, more than water is in motion here.

“May 2: The water level is rising incredibly fast, which is not too astonishing, since the temperatures have escalated recently: A week ago we measured temperatures around zero degrees Celsius (30 degrees Fahrenheit); now we are in the early 20s (late 60s in Fahrenheit). The water looks brownish, and it tastes a bit like old leaves, which is not astonishing either, because it flows over the forest ground.” (Manuela, flood survivor, photographed this iceberg that landed in her acreage last week)

Spring break-up on the Yukon River this year is a dramatic example of the river’s unique hydrology: the crazy thing flows north (from Whitehorse to Alaska), in other words from warm to cold, uncommon in the North American landscape.

Several days of +20-degree weather at the end of April meant two things: a quick break-up of ice near Whitehorse, and thick chunks of ice available to flow north. A Dawsonite explained the significance of that this way: a slower melt means the ice is thinner when it breaks, so chunks floating upriver are smaller too, less likely to jam. This spring’s rapid melt saw chunks as thick as 4 or 5 feet, from 2 to 15 feet wide, some more than 30 feet long,  floating downriver.

The melted, warmer water carried ice jumble north to parts of the river that are still frozen. If the solid ice can’t move, the water and its “freight” has nowhere to go but over, around, and up onto the solid sections.

The quote above is from a blog I found when I was searching for information about these rapid changes. An Austrian woman named Manuela, who is tracking her experiences living in the middle of nowhere in the Yukon, had her cabin flooded last weekend. Thankfully, the architecture wasn’t destroyed (she’s about 30 km south of Eagle).

With her permission, here are a few quotes from her experience of the flood – citizen journalism from someone embedded in the mess and loss of it all.

There are many news items about the unprecedented 34-foot rise of ice-chunked water that wiped out Eagle, AK, on May 4 (links below), as well as other communities before that (Rock Creek, YT), with threats continuing today.

For the whole story, check out Manuela’s blog http://manuelaz.blogspot.com (or in German at http://manuelayukon.blogspot.com). Her entries also give a sense of the ongoing realities of living in the northern wilderness.

Manuela's cabin. The water rose 2 ft more after this Sun May 2 shot.
Manuela's cabin. The water rose 2 ft more after this Sun May 2 shot.

Day 5 (May 3): The water level is still rising. We expect the ice to break within the next 24 hours, though. After that it could rise even more, when the ice jams up somewhere downriver. Upriver people are reporting unusual floods, already….

May 8
Let me pick up where I left off. On Sunday the river kept rising, the ice jammed, the river continued rising.

Next day, Monday, May 4, the river was still jammed, the water level right up at the bank. In the afternoon a channel broke on the other side of the river, but the water level remained high. We spent the day watching the river with tense anticipation. Elias predicted that it would “go with a vengeance”. We went to bed.

Tuesday, May 5: Elias got up at 1.30 am. He woke me up at 5.30, saying “You better get up, the water is rising again”. That was day one of the flood. While the water level was rising we evacuated as much stuff as we could from the cabin and packed it all into the upstairs of the new house, or way up into the hills. Wearing neoprene chest waders, we spent the whole day in and out of the cold water. When the water level got too high, we used the canoe to haul stuff. We started at 5.30 am, and finished for the day at 10.30 pm. By then the old cabin was submerged to the roof. The upstairs stayed dry – a few inches more and it would have been wet, too. And then I could not sleep.…

On day two of the flooding (Wednesday, May 5) we walked up the ridge to check the river. Elias had talked with a man from 20 miles downriver, who had told him that another ice jam was only a few miles away from us. We saw it coming. The ice jam had made it to the island two kilometres downriver. That was when I started to get afraid, close to panic afraid. We continued to pack whatever we could as far up as we could. In the evening of Wednesday at around 8pm the water level started to drop rapidly.

The island in the centre is surrounded by ice jam, instead of its usual water. Manuela's photo, the sight she says filled her with definite fear, not just concern.
The island in the centre is surrounded by ice jam, instead of its usual water. Manuela's photo, the sight she says filled her with definite fear, not just concern.

Thursday, May 6, the river was back in its usual bed. We started to clean up. To see that cabin all mud covered and everything inside destroyed, knocked over, dirt covered is something I could not have imagined. We spent the day starting to clean up, but there are so many lose ends, so many things to do. Another story begins…

Meg again. Here are links to a few news stories about May floods along the Yukon River. For Eagle: see the Anchorage Daily News, CBC’s As It Happens, and The Newsminer which should be praised for its in-depth yet sensitive conversations with people who are still in shock: “It was amazing, to see trees, literally standing straight up, going by like candles on a birthday cake,” said one Eagle resident).

Leading up to that disaster, several homes in Rock Creek, near Dawson, were flooded on May 2-3 (Yukon NewsCBC). And things haven’t calmed down quite yet. Stevens Village (AK) was covered with water and ice, forcing evacuations, on May 9; Tanana (AK) residents were evacuated May 12.
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