River ice forecasters prepare for spring thaw

Photo of the Athabasca River taken during an observation flight

Aerial view of the Athabasca River during spring melt

After a long winter, rejoicing in the first signs of spring – migrating birds, melting snow packs and breaking river ice – is a right of passage for many Albertans.

For Alberta’s river hydrologists and ice engineers, this is the launch of busy season at the River Forecast Centre.

These specialists carefully monitor river conditions to assess how water flows, weather, and snowmelt affect the receding ice covers. Real time data is collected from more than 130 river level gauges across the province.

Photo of an airplane used for aerial tours

Aerial tours are done to observe conditions along the rivers

Aerial and on-ground observations provide an overall assessment to supplement river level gauges and remote sensing information. Forecasters then compile this information with historical data to project the risk of ice jams and flooding along the rivers.

In most cases, nature runs its course, but the Peace River and the Athabasca River have an increased risk of ice-related flooding.

The Peace River is actively monitored, from freeze-up in the fall to breakup in the spring, due to increased winter flows from the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (BC Hydro) facilities upstream. The Alberta government has an agreement with BC Hydro to jointly monitor these flows and reduce outputs when necessary.

Photo of the Athabasca River observation map

Red dots on the observation map indicate data collection points

Fort McMurray’s location at the juncture of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers put it at an increased risk. In this case, we depend on Mother Nature’s timing. The Athabasca must break up first in order to accommodate the increased flows from the melted Clearwater. If this isn’t timed right, ice jams could form at the juncture causing flood waters to back up into the town.

To prepare for potential flooding events, the River Forecast Centre deploys on-the-ground field observers prior to ice breakup to monitor the situation daily and relay information to the affected municipalities, emergency personnel and the public.

Although the river ice appears to be receding normally and this year’s outlook is positive, a number of procedures are in place should conditions change.

Emergency response

Photo of the ASERT response team during a briefing

ASERT response team getting an emergency briefing

Depending on the severity of ice conditions, an Emergency Operations Centre will be deployed to coordinate the efforts of emergency response groups such as Alberta Environment Support and Emergency Response Team (ASERT), Alberta Emergency Management Authority (AEMA), and local responders.

During a flood, local municipalities lead the emergency response and direct the actions local residents need to take to stay safe. Emergency response agencies provide additional on-site support.

Residents are kept informed through local media and the Alberta Emergency Alert system. You can also sign up for alerts through email, Facebook and Twitter.

River ice reports and forecaster observations are also available online.

Emergency preparedness

In addition to monitoring conditions, we also work with our municipal partners to ensure they are adequately prepared and have the capability to respond to a major event. This is done through training and by conducting emergency exercises to test their ability to respond.

By being prepared and working together, we hope to keep everyone safe during the transition from winter to summer.

One thought on “River ice forecasters prepare for spring thaw

  1. Pingback: Does snowpack predict flooding? The answer might surprise you. | Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development

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