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Operation River WatchOperation River Watch

Alaska pilots assist with flood predictions Alaska pilots assist with flood predictions 

With limited means to monitor hazardous river conditions in Alaska, the National Weather Service is calling on general aviation pilots to lend a helping hand—or wing.

River ice on the Yukon River, looking upstream, at the mouth of the Charlie River. Ice floes are accumulating as they encounter solid ice that hasn't started to move yet. Photos like this, taken with the smartphone using the Theodolite app (or other programs that capture GPS location), are emailed to the National Weather Service to help hydrologists monitor possible flooding risks. Photo by Tom George.

While the continental United States continues to deal with the rippling effects of the coronavirus pandemic, river ice jams and flooding are beginning to threaten Alaska’s communities. As the temperatures change and an unusually heavy snowpack begins to melt, the need to monitor river breakup has intensified—putting hydrologists on edge and causing them to look to the aviation community for relief.

The NWS is encouraging pilots who are able to adhere to travel restrictions to conduct flights in support of the River Watch Program, which relies on villagers and aircraft to provide reports of ice conditions in the area. In the past, pireps from pilots during River Watch flights have proven to be beneficial in informing the NWS of dangerous conditions. For example, spring 2009 breakup along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers resulted in the most destructive flooding in decades, but thanks to NWS warnings, which were issued partly from observational information gathered from pilots, communities made preparations to deal with high water and major flooding.

Because more than 80 percent of Alaska’s communities are isolated from roadways, aviation has long played a huge role in the Last Frontier as many residents rely on air travel to stay connected with the rest of the world. Though Alaska contains only 0.2 percentof the U.S. population, it is estimated to have about six times as many pilots and 16 times as many aircraft per capita as the rest of the country.

While flights have declined heavily at airports around the world in the wake of a global pandemic, Alaska’s Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is an anomaly. An uptick in cargo operations on the field has propelled the airport to surpass international hubs like Los Angeles International Airport, Dubai, and Hong Kong, taking the spot as the world’s busiest airport—highlighting the value of aviation to the local economy.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a proclamation on May 1 declaring May Aviation Appreciation Month in Alaska, and the timing couldn’t align more with the call for public service.

“We appreciate the governor highlighting the role that aviation plays in Alaska. These are challenging times; however, there are things pilots can do to help, such as participate in the River Watch Program,” said AOPA Alaska Regional Manager Tom George. “We suggest that pilots study the intrastate travel mandates to ensure they are not making the situation worse, as we contribute to providing information needed to monitor breakup.”

To help pilots understand restrictions and whether it is OK to fly, AOPA has posted a state-by-state guide on our website. To see where the NWS is specifically looking for observations, check out the Alaska PIREP Request on the Alaska Pacific River Forecast webpage.

Amelia Walsh

Communications Coordinator
AOPA Communications Coordinator Amelia Walsh joined AOPA in 2017. Named after the famous aviatrix, she comes from a family of pilots and is currently working on her pilot certificate.
Topics: Aircraft, Weather

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