US-Russian exchange discusses spring breakup flooding solutions

A delegation from Russia recently visited Galena, as part of a state department-funded cultural exchange.

The program allowed civic leaders from two riverside villages to share ideas about how to prepare for, respond to, and maybe even prevent, spring breakup flooding.

Photo of the Galena Flood (Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service)
Photo of the Galena Flood (Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service)

The seeds for the project were planted when Katia Kontar, as a new graduate student at UAF, watched a presentation by National Weather Service Hydrologist Ed Plumb about the 2013 Galena flood.

“And he had this incredible, terrifying story about what happened in Galena,” Kontar said. “And I thought that ice jams and flooding were just fascinating and I really wanted to study them.  Because it is truly an understudied subject; there is not much information out there.”

That prompted Kontar and a UAF team led by Dean of the Graduate School John Eichelberger to secure a “Peer to Peer” grant from the U.S. State Department, which set up a cultural exchange between Galena and Edeytsy – a community on the Lena River in the Yakutia region of Siberia, which also had a severe flood in May of 2013.

A group of Alaskans, including Galena’s mayor and tribal council chief, visited Edeytsy last fall.  U.S. sanctions on Russia almost prevented the Russians from visiting Alaska, but the UAF contingent cobbled together enough money on their own to fund the Russians’ travel to Alaska earlier in March.

Photo of the Galena Flood (Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service)
Photo of the Galena Flood (Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service)

The project has illuminated some stark differences in how the Russians address the risk of spring breakup flooding in their rural villages compared to what is happening in Alaska.  As Kontar explains, the Russians are doing a lot more.
“The key difference between the Russian North and the American North is that Russia just has way more arctic land,” said Kontar. “And it is way more populated than Alaska, and it has always been strategically important to Russia.  So they have always put in more resources into problems such as breakup floods.”

In particular, Russian authorities commonly spread coal dust on river ice to encourage faster melting – something that used to be done on the Yukon near Galena, but not anymore.  The Russians also use ice-cutting tractors to perforate the ice, smash up relatively-thin ice with icebreaking ships wherever possible, and still resort to blasting ice jams with explosives when all other options have been exhausted.

Galena Mayor Jon Korta says that there is no doubt that the Russians are throwing more money and resources at the problem, but it is still not clear if that all effort makes a difference.

“I don’t think they have science to back up any of those mitigation measures,” Korta said. “Before we would consider doing those things on the Yukon, I think we need to study them further to see how effective they are.”

For now, Kontar is compiling breakup knowledge and experience from Galena and Edeytsy into a final report…

“Which would be not only appropriate for a scientific publication, but also for the local administration in communities such as Galena and Edeytsy who suffer from the problem of breakup floods.  So that would just be best practices for them, which could be easily applied to their specific communities.”

Photo of the Edeytsy Flood (Photo courtesy of Semeyon Yadreev, Head of Edeytsy Administration)
Photo of the Edeytsy Flood (Photo courtesy of Semeyon Yadreev, Head of Edeytsy Administration)

Both communities are shifting away from a policy of evacuating people when a flood is occurring or imminent.   After the federal government paid for dozens of homes around Galena to be elevated above the 2013 flood level, Mayor Korta says that Galena should be better prepared to shelter in place during the next flood.
“The last time, we didn’t know how much higher the water was going to go, so the decision was made to evacuate,” Korta said. “But probably we put people more at risk by trying to evacuate than if we had just chose to ride it out.  And knowing what we know now, putting things in place like food, water and medicine, we should be able to hunker down for the duration of any flood.  And then, if our infrastructure is in bad shape, and then we need to evacuate people for a period of time, then we can do it in a safe and orderly manner.”

Based on forecasts for a warmer than average spring, the National Weather Service predicts that breakup might come about a week earlier than normal this year across Alaska.