Alaska Rivers Smash Records for Earliest Spring Ice Breakup

Chris Dolce
Published: April 15, 2019

Two Alaskan rivers have smashed records for their earliest spring ice breakup in about 100 years of records after recent mild and record-breaking temperatures.

A large tripod placed on the ice of the Tanana River in the town of Nenana made its move downstream after the ice gave way at 12:21 a.m. AST Sunday, making it the earliest date it has done this in 103 years of records. Nenana is located about an hour drive southwest of Fairbanks in Alaska's interior region.

The tripod is used for an annual contest called the Nenana Ice Classic, which allows people to purchase tickets for the day and time they think the ice under the tripod will break up, earning the winner(s) a split of the jackpot. But it also serves a purpose in climate records since the ice breakup at this location has been tracked the longest for any river in the United States, according to Alaska-based climatologist Dr. Brian Brettschneider of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

The earliest that ice has broken open at Nenana prior to this year was April 20 in both 1940 and 1998, according to the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska (IARC). It has occurred as late as May 20 in both 1964 and 2013.

IARC says that ice breakup at Nenana has trended earlier by about five days in recent decades.

Also setting a record is the Kuskokwim River at Bethel, where the ice breakup occurred last Friday. That easily beat the previous record from a few years ago, April 20, 2016. This location also has a long history, dating to 1924.

Warm temperatures in early 2019 are responsible for these record-early ice breakups.

Alaska had its warmest March on record, crushing the month's previous high mark set in 1965 by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit. February was also much above average across central and western Alaska.

Parts of Alaska crushed their all-time-warmest March on record in 2019.
(Data: NOAA/NCEI/NWS)

The mild trend has continued to begin April. Many locations in central and southern Alaska had a top-10-warmest April 1-13, according to data from NOAA's Regional Climate Centers.

Thin ice from the mild weather has proved to be deadly on the Kuskokwim River. At least four people have been killed this spring after slipping through meager ice cover, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.


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