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Warm weather brings higher water levels to area waterways


  Temperatures are expected to get into the seventies this weekend as the start of summer weather comes to the Kenai Peninsula. The warm snap means more snow melt at elevation and higher water in streams and rivers.

There’s no end in sight to the unseasonably warm weather that’s been the hallmark of this winter-that-wasn’t on the peninsula. In fact, it’s just expected to get hotter.

“It’s been a pretty nice spring, overall, but what we’re going to be seeing continuing into the weekend and maybe even into early next week is kind of that first jump into truly summertime temperatures and what we call air mass moving into southern Alaska,” said Andrew Dixon, the service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Anchorage.

That means surface temperatures and freezing levels at elevation are expected to rise significantly.

“So, in the last month or so, the freezing level has generally been 3,000 to 4,000 or 5,000 feet. We’re going to see freezing levels pushing up to 10,000 feet over the next few days," said Dixon. "So, what that’s going to do is it’s going to start melting off a lot of the snow that’s remaining at the higher elevations.”

Despite the brown ground over the last few months, there was still enough snow on the mountains to get a good pack.

“One thing that we want to point out to people is that even though the winter was kind of low on snow at the lower elevations where most people live, the higher elevations of our mountains around southern Alaska were actually near normal or, in some cases, significantly above normal in terms of the snow pack that accumulated," he explained. "So, there is still a lot of snow up there that’s going to melt.”

All of that snow melt has to go somewhere. Rivers and streams in the area will take the brunt of the melt and their water levels will rise as a result.

This week, the weather service issued a reminder to locals who plan on recreating on or near these waterways to keep the changing conditions in mind.

“When you’ve got a lot of water moving down the rivers and things, you’ve got a lot of erosion happening. With erosion, you’ve got a lot more wood and vegetation and things that grow along the banks starting to fall in. You’ll find little pile-ups of branches and other trees and things like that that could kind of catch you by surprise on any corner," said Lance Haggerty, a local outdoor enthusiast and avid kayaker.

Rocks that are typically visible may also become submerged. So, he said, even if you’re familiar with the terrain, it may look very different. In addition, there’s more of a chance for encountering fast and dangerous water conditions.

“I would maybe slow your paddles down. I would maybe get out alongside the river if you see any kind of whitewater or debris, any obstacles in the river. Get out ahead of it, ahead of time, and maybe scout bends, scout corners, walk the river and look and see if there’s any kind of obstacles,” Haggerty said.

It’s important to keep an eye on your surroundings, stay alert, and have good communication with your fellow kayakers or boaters, like making sure everyone understands the same hand or whistle signals and having a plan before you head out.

He said boaters should dress appropriately for the weather, bring a knife in case they get stuck and need to cut their way out of a tangle, and always remember to wear a life jacket and, for kayaking, a helmet.

“Helmets are very important. In case you do roll over, you’re not going to be hitting your head on rocks or any other type of obstacles down there and if you do, then you‘ve got something to protect yourself. It’s kind of like riding a bicycle. So, any kind of precaution like that [that’ you’ve got], the better," said Haggerty.

According to hydrologist Dixon, this is the time of year we’d normally be seeing meltwater starting to come off the mountains.

“It’s not terribly early. The real anomaly this year was all through the winter but especially February and March and even into April, too," Dixon said. "We never got really cold during the winter, so, our departures from normal were very significant during the winter.”

According to the National Weather Service, the predominant weather pattern this winter was weather systems coming from the southeast to the northwest.

“That’s a real wet pattern in general, especially for the ocean side of the mountains or the coastal side of the mountains," Dixon said.

The higher temperatures were a side effect of the southeasterly winds. Typically, the freezing level in the winter is between the surface and 1,500 feet during a warm storm. This past winter it spent time at several thousand feet, which is why the snow pack is greater at this point in the season.

“Pretty much every time we got rain at the lower elevations, they were still getting snow at the higher elevations," he explained. "Because that storm track that we were in for so long just kept steering storm after storm after storm into southern Alaska, the net effect is that any place that was cold enough to get snow for most of those got more than normal.”

So, enjoy the sunshine and balmy weather the weekend brings, but stay safe as all that extra snow comes down from the mountains.