Alaska’s capital hit by record-breaking glacial flooding

What happened?

A massive release of water from a glacial lake caused severe flooding in Juneau, Alaska, on Saturday, August 5, 2023. The water came from the Suicide Basin, a side basin of the Mendenhall Glacier, which is located about 12 miles north of the state capital. The water flowed into the Mendenhall Lake and River, raising the lake level to a record 14.97 feet, well above the previous record of 11.99 feet set in 2016. The flooding destroyed at least two buildings and prompted evacuations of residents along the river. City officials declared a local emergency on Sunday as the flooding made the banks of the river unstable and blocked some roads with silt and debris.

glacial flooding

Why did it happen?

The flooding was caused by a phenomenon known as a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF), which occurs when a glacier dammed lake suddenly releases a large amount of water. This can happen due to various factors, such as melting ice, heavy rainfall, earthquakes, or landslides. The Suicide Basin has been releasing GLOFs since 2011, but this year’s event was the largest and most destructive one so far. Scientists have warned that GLOFs are becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change, which is causing glaciers to retreat and melt faster.

How did people react?

The flooding caught many people by surprise, as there was no warning system in place to alert them of the impending danger. Some residents captured dramatic videos of trees and houses collapsing into the raging river, while others scrambled to evacuate their homes and belongings. The National Weather Service advised people to stay away from the river and its unstable banks, and to give space for emergency crews to provide assistance. Some residents expressed frustration and anger at the lack of preparedness and communication from the authorities, while others expressed gratitude and relief that no one was injured or killed by the flooding.

What are the impacts?

The flooding has caused significant damage to property and infrastructure in Juneau, as well as environmental impacts on the ecosystem and wildlife. The city said that some fuel tanks and hazardous material containers were affected by the flooding, raising concerns about possible contamination of the water and soil. The flooding also disrupted utilities, such as power and water supply, in some areas. The city is working to restore services and clear debris from the roads as soon as possible. The city also said that it is assessing the extent of the damage and will seek state and federal assistance if needed.

What are the next steps?

The city said that it is working with local, state, and federal agencies to monitor the situation and provide support to the affected residents. The city also said that it is exploring options to install a warning system for future GLOFs from the Suicide Basin, as well as other mitigation measures to reduce the risk of flooding. The city urged residents to stay informed and prepared for potential emergencies, and to follow its official website and social media accounts for updates.

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