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Heavy snow and thick ice could mean trouble for Aklavik's spring melt, says local

Spring is still months away in the Northwest Territories, but people are already looking ahead at the spring breakup season. In Aklavik, some see signs that could point to heavy flooding.

Some see signs pointing to heavier spring flooding, but not everyone agrees

Jessi Pascal, from Aklavik, N.W.T., says heavier snowfall and thick ice this winter could lead to heavier flooding in the community during the spring. (Edwin Gordon)

Spring is still months away from reaching parts of the Northwest Territories, but Jessi Pascal is already thinking about what's going to happen when the Peel River breaks up near her home in Aklavik. 

She says she's already seeing some signs that could point to serious flooding in her community: deep snow and thick ice. 

"We have a lot of snowfall, we have very high snow piles all over town and thick ice," she said. "It's these little things." 

Aklavik sits on an elbow in the Peel Channel, which runs off the main river, and has two lakes close by. When the snow melts in the spring and the ice breaks up and jams on the river, water levels rise and threaten the community of about 600 people. Some years are worse than others, with 2006 and 2013 remembered as particularly bad years. 

"Elders and traditional knowledge have told me that we usually flood every 10 to 12 years, so this year might have a very high possibility of us flooding again," Pascal said. 

In addition to spending time on the land, Pascal is producing a mini-documentary on climate change in her community, so she's been talking to elders about what they're seeing. 

Elders and traditional knowledge have told me that we usually flood every 10 to 12 years.- Jessi Pascal

For herself, she's noticed the ice is much thicker than usual. She recently tried to chip through the ice to set her nets, but couldn't make it through with her chisel, which rarely happens. 

But predicting what will happen isn't an exact science, and even the elders disagree on how to interpret what's happening around them, Pascal said. 

A view of the Richardson Mountains in Aklavik, N.W.T., during the winter. (Submitted by Jessi Pascal)

"I speak to elders almost every day, one of them told me, 'It's not going to flood, it's not going to flood,' so it mixes up my radar, and makes me think of all the factors that could lead to a flood or not," Pascal said. 

Elder Renie Arey, 74, sees the same cold weather and heavy snow cover as Pascal, but she's less concerned about the potential for flooding. That's because the water levels on the Peel are much lower than they used to be. 

"I don't know if there's going to be a flood or not, but compared to 10 years ago, [the water levels] are way, way down," Arey said.   

"It's not like long ago when the ice was thick, thick, thick," she said. "It's totally different from long ago, compared to today." 

Arey, who is also a former president of the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee, remembers some of the biggest floods in Aklavik from when she was younger; she says the water was so high people could use their boats on the community streets. 

This year, even if the water levels rise, they probably won't reach levels that would cause seriously damage or warrant an evacuation, Arey said.

Both Pascal and Arey will need to wait until the melt happens to see whether their predictions come true. But either way, the community is preparing — community flood meetings are expected to happen in the next few weeks. 

Clarifications

  • The location of the community has been clarified.
    Feb 20, 2020 11:25 AM CT

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