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Recent history of glacial lake outburst floods, analysis of channel changes, and development of a two-dimensional flow and sediment transport model of the Snow River near Seward, Alaska

January 12, 2023

Snow Lake, a glacially dammed lake on the Snow Glacier near Seward, Alaska, drains rapidly every 14 months–3 years, causing flooding along the Snow River. Highway, railroad, and utility infrastructure on the lower Snow River floodplain is vulnerable to flood damage. Historical hydrology, geomorphology, and two-dimensional hydraulic and sediment transport modeling were used to assess the flood risks from Snow Lake outburst floods. Floods have become more frequent, peaked more rapidly, and have had generally higher peaks over the last 20 years as the Snow Glacier has thinned, translating to a greater potential for flood damage. Rapidly shifting channel locations and the occasional introduction of large volumes of debris to the river also threaten infrastructure on the floodplain and in the channel. An assessment of the historical channel planform between 1951 and 2019 showed that there have been more and less stable segments along the lower Snow River and that channel migration has generally been toward the east. An analysis of floodplain elevations using 2008 light detection and ranging (lidar) showed that the main channel is relatively high compared to floodplain channels that carry floodwaters along the railroad grade, so that once the main channel banks are overtopped water rapidly disperses throughout the floodplain. A two-dimensional flow and sediment transport model was developed, and its simulation results were compared to three past outburst floods from 2007, 2017, and 2019. Despite the complex floodplain and channel geometry, coarse resolution of the mesh, and sediment input data, the model successfully simulated areas of observed scour along the railroad grade and at the guidebank to the highway bridge. The modeled water-surface elevations generally replicated peak elevations recorded at a streamgage in the middle of the model domain and at pressure transducers installed on the floodplain and main channel, although there were discrepancies on the rising limb and some locations had a poorer fit than others. A model of a hypothetical check flood, approximately 150 percent of the largest recorded outburst flood, was developed to provide hydraulic variables to use when planning for infrastructure upgrades.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2023
Title Recent history of glacial lake outburst floods, analysis of channel changes, and development of a two-dimensional flow and sediment transport model of the Snow River near Seward, Alaska
DOI 10.3133/sir20225099
Authors Robin A. Beebee
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2022-5099
Index ID sir20225099
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Water