15-Mile Ice Jam Hits Canada's Tar Sands Capital, Causing Floods and Evacuations

There’s a river under there.
There’s a river under there.
Photo: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta (Flickr)

Fort McMurray is under evacuation for the second time in four years. The Albertan town was besieged by a huge wildfire in 2016, but now it faces flooding due to an army of ice (feel free to leave your Game of Thrones references in the comments).

The Athabasca River that cuts through the town has been choked by piles of ice chunks that stretch roughly 15 miles, according to the Albertan government. That’s left water with nowhere to go but into the streets, businesses, and homes of Fort McMurray, Canada’s tar sands capital. The regional government has issued mandatory evacuation orders for 13,000 people over the past 48 hours and more could be on the way as water continues to back up on the Athabasca and other rivers in the area.

The technical term for what’s happening right now is an ice jam, which typically occurs when a sudden rise in temperature causes river ice to quickly break up and flow downstream. When all that ice gets to a bend in the river or a chokepoint, it begins to pile up and boom, ice jam.


They’re not that unusual in springtime or even during random winter warmups. That type of random heat is expected to become more common and lead to more ice jams in some locations, though in a strange twist, climate change may actually reduce the risk of ice jams in the area because it means less ice. But regardless, the extent of the ice jam throwing Fort McMurray into crisis is on another level.

Water levels rose around 19 feet on the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers at the start of this week, according to Alberta’s river monitoring agency. Downtown Fort McMurray—which sits right on the river’s edge—was submerged. Car roofs poked out like icebergs in the murky river waters, and businesses were flooded out.

Flooding in Fort McMurray earlier this week.
Flooding in Fort McMurray earlier this week.
Photo: Clancy Bouwman/Office of the Premier (Flickr)

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, a local government that oversees Fort McMurray and the surrounding area, reported that more than 6,000 evacuees have registered and more are on the way as the flooding shows no signs of subsiding. Boil orders have been put in place across the region to reduce the risk of waterborne diseases.

Don Scott, the mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said he asked for fighter jets to bomb the ice to loosen things up. It’s something Russia has done in recent years, and the U.S. did this in the wake of World War II, so it’s not quite as bonkers as it sounds. But the ask was denied because it would make matters worse by allowing the jam to become even more entrenched.


“It’s the sheer size of the ice jam itself that prevents the military from using explosives,” Scott said.

So basically, this is a waiting game for nature to take its course. That means waiting for a further warmup that melts out enough ice to ease the congestion, something that could happen later this week. In addition to the jam on the Athabasca River, a nearly 24-mile ice jam has clogged the Peace River 200 miles to the northwest in Fort Vermillion.


All this is happening against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which has reached Fort McMurray. The province is expecting the number of cases to keep rising and peak in mid-May, and it will now have to juggle that with responding to the flooding and the risks it could pose to spreading the virus.

Evacuation shelters could become a breeding ground for the virus, and the government has said it’s looking to secure hotel rooms and other accommodations that won’t put people in close proximity. First responders, though, are working together because they have to, raising the risks of transmission.


The pandemic has also taken a toll on the oil industry, and Fort McMurray is the hub for Canadian tar sands operations. After getting screwed by the coronavirus and huge drop in oil demand and, thus, prices, the town is now getting kicked while it’s down by a monster flood. All this is happening just four years after the town was hit by an absolutely disastrous 1.5 million acre wildfire that destroyed roughly 2,400 buildings.

Managing editor, Earther

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A tortoise named Hubert

ok i know we aren’t supposed to intervene in complex systems like our climate (no geo-engineering) but..... on a micro scale... any reason we can’t just hit the ice jam with some artillery shells? or controlled explosive charges... or... something?

clearing a bunch of ice from a part of a river is well within our capacity. Hell dump a bunch of cranberry juice on it to lower its abledo and then use mirrors to focus a bunch of sunlight on the ice. We could do that on a HUGE scale quickly