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The Big Melt Out

Dan Bross
Meltwater puddle next to the Fairbanks North Star Borough Central Recycling facility

50-degree high temperatures across the Central Interior are accelerating snow melt and transitioning rivers toward break up.

Rapid melting of Fairbanks deepest snowpack in 30 years has submerged some city streets.

“Its been a pretty dramatic spring so far,” said City of Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly at a city council meeting Monday night.

“Unfortunately there are more trouble spots in town than we have employees or equipment,” he said.

City Public works director Jeff Jacobsen said, “We are basically having to steam open every storm drain in the city and some of them have taken up to 5 days to thaw one drain out.”

Jacobsen blames the unprecedented heavy rain that fell in Fairbanks on the day after Christmas.

“We did not anticipate having out main storm drains frozen solid.”  

Four months later, that’s resulted in standing melt water in some locations.

“You can see what happened on Cowles Street with the main line there frozen, there is a huge lake that crosses all lanes of traffic, right past the hospital and near the Chief Andrew Isaac Clinic.”   
Jacobsen cautioned drivers about large potholes opening up in pavement underlying meltwater puddles. He says the city just spent 25 thousand dollars to rent additional boiler and vacuum trucks to thaw pipes and suck up meltwater. He says April public works costs are projected to top 230 thousand dollars, the latest of several months in a row during which the city has racked up high costs related to snow and ice removal.

“We have worked our temp operators non-stop since the middle of December.  From that period until last Friday we had a night crew working also, and there were only 3 weekends since December that they had off, so they had been working 50 hours, 60 hours and now the last 2 weeks, 70 hours.”

The city is hoping to cover some of its costs with state funds made available through a disaster declaration issued by the governor following Christmas New Years’ time frame storms.

Meanwhile, the warm weather is also beginning to deteriorate river ice. During a weekly break up teleconference for the Yukon River region Monday, National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb pointed to areas of open water, and water on ice on the Tanana River and smaller drainages.

“Especially between like Delta and almost down to Fairbanks,” said Plumb.

Plumb says the Weather Service continues to look at the possibility of a dynamic break up conducive to ice jam flooding, given the recent transition from what had been cooler than normal temperatures.

“We switched to this sort of warmer than normal pattern over much of the area.”    

Plum says the upper Yukon River in Canada remains solid and snow covered but downstream, Eagle area resident Andy Bassich reported a layer of water between the snow and underlying ice, adding that drilling holes in the ice revealed changing conditions.

“Last week at this time the ice was very hard, when I was drilling today the ice was feeling much softer and in fact the second hole that I drilled where the ice was deeper, the ice felt extremely soft, so that candling effect is starting to happen.”

Bassich says conditions appear much different than in years when there was ice jam flooding.

“In 2009 around this time when we had the bad flooding, I had to put extensions on my auger and in one place I never even got through the ice with an extension, so I feel pretty good seeing that the ice is staring to soften up, and I feel pretty good that we are only at 27 to 30 inches of ice right now, so I think when the ice moves through here it’s going to break up ok.”

Looking across the broader region, it’s hard to forecast whether rivers will break up or mush out according to Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesperson Jeremy Zidek.

“In 2012 we had an above average flood potential with very little flooding, but in 2013 we had an above average flood potential with flooding all across the state, Galena being the hardest hit so, the above average flood potential doesn’t mean for certain that we are going to flood, but it really raises our level of concern at the state’s emergency management agency.”      

Zidek urges river community residents to err on the safe side and be prepared for the worst.

“So any steps that people can take right now, even if that’s just filling up a couple water containers or taking some critical documents and gathering them together can really make the world of difference when that disaster event occurs.”

Alaska’s annual river watch program, which includes overflights and visits to remote communities, is scheduled to begin along the upper Yukon River next week