Landslide briefly blocks access to hydro dam after record rainfall in Sitka

A gravel road with piles of rock along the side after a landslide was cleared
The Sitka Electric Utility Department received a report of a landslide across Green Lake Road shortly after 9 a.m. on Feb. 17, 2022. The debris was cleared from the road by midday (Photo courtesy of the City of Sitka Electric Utility Department).

Rainfall in Sitka broke records on Wednesday, and February is shaping up to exceed the month’s typical rainfall by leaps and bounds.

Rick Fritsch is a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Juneau. He said Sitka’s airport recorded 2.16 inches of rainfall.

“Just as a point of reference for that, the previous record for the airport in Sitka for the 16th of February [was]  0.93 inches. So, more than doubled the previous record which was set in 1988,” said Fritsch.

“When a record gets broken by that much, even in today’s climate of climate change, that’s still kind of extraordinary,” Fritsch said.

Extraordinary enough to cause one confirmed landslide. Fritsch said the weather service received a report early Thursday of a landslide across Green Lake Road, blocking access to the city’s hydroelectric dam. In an email to KCAW, electric utility director Scott Elder said the time of the slide is unknown, but it was reported to their office at 9:10 a.m. He said that staff from the nearby hatchery cleared debris from the road by mid-day.

Wednesday wasn’t an outlier. So far, Sitka has recorded just over 13 inches of rain this February, well above the average 3.5 inches.

“We’re talking about just shy of 10 inches above normal already,” Fritsch said. “And we just hit the half-point of the month.”

The trend is present throughout Southeast. Fritsch says Juneau recorded more than double its January record for rainfall. He says rainfall records shattering by such a wide margin lines up with trends climate scientists predicted years ago.

“Eight or ten years ago, the [Intergovernmental] Panel on Climate Change said that, among other things, we’re going to see not only an increase in precipitation on an annual basis, but we’re also going to see an increase in extreme precipitation events,” Fritsch said.

“And that gets back to, when records fall, more and more frequently they’re falling by very large numbers,” Fritsch said.

Fitsch says it looks like March will be drier, and summer will be wetter, meaning that water shortages won’t be a huge concern as they have been recently in some parts of the region. And it could be good for salmon runs.

But Southeast summers also depend on snowpack for moisture through the late summer months, and Fritsch says much of that snow has already melted.

KCAW - Sitka

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