Ice conditions on the Yukon have changed since the 1980's. Now, open water is more common in spots along the river, which impacts winter travel.
Observation by Marilyn Roberts, Koyukuk Tribal Council:
Usually this time of year, the temperatures would be 50 to 60 below, with about 7 feet of snow. This year we have maybe about 2 to 3 inches of snow on the ground. On the Yukon River from Koyukuk, maybe about 24 miles below Galena, there is Bishop Mountain summer camp. There’s a strong eddy there and it’s open. We can’t go up river anymore on the ice because of the open water. We can’t even go up to Galena through the portage. The river channels have changed. Three miles above Koyukuk it’s open, and still open about 3 miles below. That’s the first part that used to freeze up back in the early days. We started seeing all these open holes on the Yukon in maybe 1981. We started seeing changes, but it was still cold. In 1981, the last place to freeze on the Yukon was maybe one place above Koyukuk before Thanksgiving. But it was still thin ice. That’s when we started losing people in the river because in the past we were just used to going up and down the river- it used to be frozen. They didn’t know this place was open. Then we started communicating to Search and Rescue between Galena and Nulato and telling people what direction to take. The last time it was safe to go on the Yukon was 1980. After that there were holes. And now there’s more open holes. This last week it was open 12 miles down to Nulato. Right now it finally freezing, but it’s thin ice. This observations was shared during the 2018 Alaska Tribal Conference on Environmental Management (ATCEM) Reported by Erica Lujan and shared with the permission of Marilyn Roberts.
Rick Thoman, Climate Scientist at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, writes:
The average temperature for October and November 2018 in the Central and Western Interior was the third highest since 1925, exceeded only in 1979 and 2002. Interestingly, since 2000 there have been many mild October-Novembers compared to the 1960-2000 period. 12/21/2018
Comments by LEO Editors:
According to the National Weather Service River Freeze Up Data, between 1962 and 2012, the Yukon River near Galena would become safe for vehicle travel
1996 and 2010, the Yukon River near Nulato would become unsafe for boats around mid-October.
LEO Observers have submitted several posts of late freeze up, and unusual weather conditions that impact river ice quality on the Yukon. In 2012, observers from Fort Yukon posted that there was no snow or ice on the river in late November. In November of 2013, observers from Koyukuk posted that residents were still able to use boats on the river in unusually warm weather. In February 2016, observers in Nulato posted about an early thaw and temperatures nearing 40 degrees Fahrenheit, when usual temperatures for that time would be 15 degrees below zero. In December of 2017, observers in both Galena and Saint Mary's posted about unusual weather patterns affecting travel on the river. Galena experienced a slow freeze up and snow, while Saint Mary's experienced freezing rain with very little snow.
The National Weather Service River Freeze Up Data, records dates of river freeze, and the days that the ice becomes safe for vehicle travel. Pictured below are two charts showing the dates that the Yukon river froze near Galena and near Nulato. Erica Lujan