Conditions shaping up for Yukon flooding

Posted: Monday, April 03, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Eleven years ago, the village of Circle City was flooded when cabin-sized ice chunks jammed up the Yukon River and forced it over its banks.

Longtime resident Dick Hutchinson remembers that in 1989, water was more than waist-deep in the little store he runs in the bottom of his two-story house.

''We're used to a foot of water, but that year there was four feet,'' he said.

Hutchinson is keeping his fingers crossed that breakup will be gentle on the Yukon this spring, but Alaska weather experts are predicting otherwise. They say the recipe for spring flooding on the Yukon River is missing only one ingredient -- cold temperatures in April.

With the Interior resting under the deepest snowpack in the last five years, the experts say, temperatures over the next month will determine whether the Yukon floods any of the dozens of villages sitting along its banks.

''We know the volume of snow is there to have enough water to cause problems,'' said Larry Rundquist, a hydrologist at Alaska River Forecast Center in Anchorage. ''That volume has to be squeezed out one way or another. The longer it takes, the better off it is for keeping water levels down.

Rundquist said the likelihood of flooding would rise if a lot of snow is still on the ground in May, when rapidly warming temperatures could overfill the Yukon with snowmelt.

The River Forecast Center now rates the spring flood potential on the Yukon and Tanana rivers at slightly above average, primarily due to the deep snow.

The 1,875-mile Yukon, the third-longest river in the United States, usually begins breaking up in early May. It typically takes about three weeks to flow freely from the headwaters in the Yukon Territory to the mouth at the Bering Sea.

Yukon flooding is usually caused by ice jams that back up water upstream until it overflows its banks.

Circle City is one of several flood-prone villages along the river. The entire town is located within a few hundred yards of the river and a shallow section of river downstream from the village is notorious for ice jams.

While Hutchinson is keeping his fingers crossed in Circle City, he knows he has no influence over flood conditions.

''When it happens, it happens,'' he said.

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