Looking for a reason to go flying—even though it isn’t exactly summer yet?  Like to provide a public service at the same time?  With ice starting to melt in Alaska’s rivers, the National Weather Service (NWS) is once again happy to receive Pilot Reports and digital photos as they monitor breakup, and forecast possible flooding along our major rivers.  Pilots willing to supply observations are invited to participate in the River Watch Program.

2018 Breakup Forecast
To get a preview of breakup predictions this year, NWS has posted a five minute video with an overview of conditions going into the season.  Some parts of the state have an elevated flood potential, given snow pack, ice thickness and forecasts of the weeks ahead.  If you live in one of these areas, participating in River Watch could be very helpful, as the melt season progresses.

What is River Watch?
NWS established the River Watch Program to enlist the aid of pilots who are willing to provide information on the ice conditions as they fly. Pilots voluntarily participating in the program are provided basic information on the mechanisms of river ice break up, and asked to file Pilot Reports (PIREPs) while on routine flights.  FAA Flight Service specialists have also been trained to take these PIREPs, formatted with a special syntax.   NWS river hydrologists receive the PIREPs, providing them with a valuable set of observations in a timely fashion, describing ice or flooding conditions as the spring season progresses.

While the voluntary program initially targeted air taxi pilots, making their daily rounds, reports are welcomed from any pilot wishing to participate.  NWS has posted information their website that provides details about the program including the PIREP format to use, and terms to describe river ice conditions.

This document, available on the NWS website, describes the format for River Watch PIREPs, and common terms used to describe ice conditions at different stages of break-up

What’s new?
This program has been in place for many years, but technology is providing some new ways to interact.  While calling Flight Service with a PIREP is probably the fastest way to convey river conditions, here are some additional methods to provide information:

  • File a PIREP online. Last year, the Aviation Weather Center provided a portal that allows pilots to file PIREPs online.  It takes two steps: first establish an account with the AWC (it’s free), and then request the ability to file PIREPs.  After that one-time approval you will now have access to the PIREP submission form under the Tools menu, while signed into your account.  (See link below for details). Study the details on River Watch PIREP formats in the reference links below.
  • Send an e-mail, directly to the river forecasters. If you have a more detailed report than fits in a PIREP, providing the information in an email after you land may be a better way to go.  To help with geographic reference, NWS has marked up flight charts segments with river miles along major river basins. You may print one of these for the intended route, making it easier to communicate locations of ice jams, or other features.  It may also be worth printing the River Ice PIREP format, with standard terms to describe ice and flooding conditions.
  • Send pictures directly to NWS forecasters—with the locations imbedded in them. If using an iPhone

    A photo taken using the Theodolite App on an iPhone. GPS coordinates are displayed on the image, with the viewing direction and other data. More importantly, the coordinates are also included in the EXIF file associated with the image. This allows NWS to import the image directly into their system, showing the location where the image was taken. Other apps also capture GPS locations, if permissions are set to enable that feature.

    or other camera that has the ability to attach GPS coordinates, (typically in the form of an EXIF format file), NWS may be able to import the photo location directly, to see where each picture was taken. In some cases, a picture is worth a thousand words!

  • Phone calls are yet another way to report river conditions. Call the River Forecast Center directly at 1-800-847-1739 during the hours between 6 am and 5 pm, especially if you observe a flood developing, or other hazardous condition.

Regardless of how you choose to provide information, consider using the increasing hours of daylight, and the need to monitor river conditions as an excuse to peel off the wing covers and take to the skies.  It is a good excuse to go flying. It also helps the river forecasters and the residents who live along the rivers, who need to know what to expect as the ice goes out this spring!

 

Reference Links:
River Watch Program overview: https://www.weather.gov/aprfc/riverwatchprogram

Filing PIREPs online: https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2017/may/16/nws-website-accepts-distributes-pilot-reports

River Watch Poster: https://www.weather.gov/media/aprfc/rwpflyer.pdf