University of Alaska environmental science professor Eran Hood (foreground right) and National Weather Service Juneau hydrologist Aaron Jacobs discuss their hope of renaming Suicide Basin to Kʼóox Ḵaadí Basin, a Tlingit name referring to a small weasel-like mammal in the area — during a presentation Friday at the University of Alaska Southeast. They also discussed the basin’s history, a record flood from it that occurred this summer and the possibility of future such floods. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

University of Alaska environmental science professor Eran Hood (foreground right) and National Weather Service Juneau hydrologist Aaron Jacobs discuss their hope of renaming Suicide Basin to Kʼóox Ḵaadí Basin, a Tlingit name referring to a small weasel-like mammal in the area — during a presentation Friday at the University of Alaska Southeast. They also discussed the basin’s history, a record flood from it that occurred this summer and the possibility of future such floods. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Experts seek to rename Suicide Basin to Kʼóox Ḵaadí Basin; warn its deadly flood threat rising

History, future and monitoring of ice dam that caused record flooding this year focus of UAS event.

This article has been corrected to note the proposed new name for the basin refers to a small mammal called a marten, not a songbird known as a martin.

An effort to change the name of Suicide Basin to Kʼóox Ḵaadí Basin is being made by a group of people who monitor and study the ice basin that caused record flooding in Juneau this summer, according to two experts during a presentation Friday night.

They also warned the deadly threat of more such flooding from the basin is increasing — yet the ice dam itself may vanish in a few decades as the Mendenhall Glacier recedes, while other such basins emerge as new threats.

The new Tlingit language name translates to “Marten’s Slide Basin,” said Eran Hood, an environmental science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast who studies glacier dynamics. The first word refers to a small weasel-like mammal that is in the area.

He and Aaron Jacobs, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service Juneau, presented the proposed name and their findings to about 150 people as part of the “Evening at Egan” lecture series in the UAS library.

“One challenge of working here is the name, honestly, is really unappealing,” Hood said. “And people have asked ‘where did this name come from?’ And I say ‘I don’t know.’ The guess is something like it’s really steep and it would be suicidal to climb down into the basin, or something like that. But we, the group of people that work on it, wanted to find a more appropriate name.”

The glacier above the ice dam would be renamed Kʼóox Sít’, Hood added.

An application to make the change official is being prepared for submission to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, he said. The name was suggested by UAS language professor X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell, who coincidentally spent Friday evening at a tribal ceremony celebrating his writing of a children’s book entirely in Tlingit.

A release of more than 13 billion gallons of water from the basin above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier on Aug. 5, which experts called a once-in-500-years flood, destroyed or damaged dozens of homes along the Mendenhall River. Water release from the basin is also suspected as a possible cause of death for Paul Jose Rodriguez Jr. while he was kayaking near the glacier a month earlier.

[Between rocks and a hard place for flood victims trying to save homes]

Most of Friday night’s 80-minute presentation focused on the science, history and likelihood of future flooding from the basin. Questions from the audience focused on expected topics such as monitoring efforts, severity of expected future flooding and if there are similar basins elsewhere on the glacier that pose a threat.

There was an audible gasp from the room early in the presentation when Hood showed time-lapse photos showing the drastic drop of the water level in the basin when the record flooding occurred. He noted the annual releases of water known as jökulhlaups started in 2011 from the basin, whose features are changing over time.

“We know that we probably won’t have to wait 500 years to have another flood like that because the boundary conditions have fundamentally changed so that we have large floods, maybe every year or two that used to be happening every couple of decades,” he said.

Numerous other interconnected factors affect the highly variable amount of flooding including increasing glacier meltwater due to climate change, weather (with an atmospheric river storm a possible contributor to a worst-case scenario flood), and the receding of the glacier that might eventually mean Suicide Basin’s ice dam no longer exists within a few decades — but others will, Hood said.

About 150 people listen to a presentation about the history and future science of Suicide Basin at the University of Alaska Southeast library on Friday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

About 150 people listen to a presentation about the history and future science of Suicide Basin at the University of Alaska Southeast library on Friday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Efforts to increase and improve monitoring of the basin are occurring, Jacobs said. Real-time monitoring and other data are offered at the National Weather Service’s website, but the intent is to install more cameras and pressure sensors to provide better information to forecasters.

“You only have time stops at every six hours,” he said, “We’re looking to try and make that every three hours so we can better temporarily see this detail on the forecasts of when those crests would be. And then we’re going to also look into ways of being able to show alternate forecasts, so being able to show what a partial release would be, what is the range of solutions, what are those impacts could be.”

The Juneau Assembly at a meeting Monday night gave preliminary approval to an ordinance that would boost the current $7,000 spent by the U.S. Geological Survey for monitoring services at Suicide Basin to $35,000. A public hearing and possible final approval of the ordinance is tentatively scheduled for the Assembly’s next meeting Nov. 13.

“The August 2023 flood event substantiated the need for advanced monitoring at Suicide Basin,” a memo submitted to the Assembly by City Manager Katie Koester states. The additional funding “would contribute toward the installation of additional cameras and a laser stage sensor at Suicide Basin, helicopter time to access the equipment, and USGS staff time collecting and interpreting data.”

Among the audience members asking questions about future flooding concerns was Sam Hatch, who said he was trapped in his housing during the August flood. He asked about the immense amount of erosion that occurred — in some instances destroying or exposing homes dozens of yards away from the previously existing riverbank — and what future modeling and prediction efforts are possible.

“One of the things that’s happened is the unprecedented property loss associated with the high volumes and velocities that are happening in the river,” he said. “But when we hit that critical velocity of sand transport because the entire valley around the river is like 80 feet of sand…that’s important because it affects whether or not certain buildings or property should be evacuated, or if property owners should be staring or running.”

Hood said experts on behalf of the city are doing laser imaging of the river corridor as part of updating mapping as well as other protective efforts. Numerous residents along the river have also installed many tons of rock fill under their homes and along the riverbanks at their own expense, a preventative measure that has also come up in Assembly discussions.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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