April Snows Bring May Outrage: Record Flooding Ahead

[Map, national hydrologic assessment via NOAA-NWS]

Map, national hydrologic assessment via NOAA-NWS

In contrast to headline news today, the weather seems perfectly harmless — until one looks carefully at these maps.

Though increased soil moisture levels may be a big improvement over this past summer’s drought, a serious problem remains: there’s been too much late snow and it’s going to melt quickly.

Based on the 21-MAR-2013 hydrologic map above, conditions along the Red River basin were quite bad; changes of major flooding were already predicted at that time. Since that report, the State Climatology Office at University of Minnesota recorded 4 inches of water (which includes 13 inches of snow) at their Twin Cities campus. This same station, however, received between 6-15 inches less snow over the last month than Fargo, North Dakota, located on the Red River.

The data used for the Percent Chance of Flooding map below is dated 15-APR-2013, before the final snowfall tally after The Weather Channel-branded winter storm “Xerxes” on 16-APR-2013. The area between Bismarck and Fargo received at least two feet of snow.

[Graphic: NOAA Nat'l Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center]

Graphic: NOAA Nat’l Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center

I’m no meterologist, climatologist, or hydrologist, but it sure looks to me like the chances of major flooding have increased from 80% to 100%. Just an uneducated guess on my part; I’ll also speculate flooding will accelerate within the next week-10 days without doing any additional research into the subject. (Hint: It’s called “spring.”)

[Graphic: NOAA-NWS River Forecast Office]

Graphic: NOAA-NWS River Forecast Office

Fortunately some folks in Minn-Dak are watching this situation carefully; volunteers in Fargo have begun filling sandbags in preparation, for example.

The total number of bags to be filled by the end next Tuesday won’t be adequate, though, against anticipated record water levels. A certain mess lies ahead.

While we have virtually nothing in the way of predictive tools to help us defend against disaffected youth intent on killing and maiming us, we do have tools to predict slow-moving challenges like annual flooding affecting millions of Americans.

Doesn’t it seem like more of us would be aware of the risks and dangers so that we as individuals, businesses, and government agencies can take truly effective measures more than a week or two in advance? Shouldn’t the age of Big Data offer us better information for local/state/federal budgeting in response to weather volatility and incipient natural disasters?

Oh wait…that would require intelligent, rational actors in government instead of science-illiterate, reactionary anti-tax freaks in office who cannot countenance paying for baseline services from National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service — let alone adequately fund development and implementation of new and better predictive technologies for use by the same..

In the meantime you can anticipate the media will be shocked, SHOCKED! when they finally clue in.

It would be nice if a few more members of Congress would be equally shocked to the point that they clued in, too.

15 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    You may have noticed I didn’t factor in the last month’s rainfall received south of Minn-Dak across midwest. We’ve got flooding here in Michigan, approaching 100-year levels; this will drain to the Great Lakes, but south of us it will drain to the Mississippi.

    And the Red River ultimately drains there as well.

    Wonder what will happen along the Mississippi River over the next three weeks? Hmm.

  2. emptywheel says:

    Hey, I’m south of you. And we drain to Lake Michigan.

    That said, the only thing preventing me from going to the water plant to help with sandbags is that my back wouldn’t last very long.

    They’re beginning to get genuinely concerned that the river will crest over the downtown flood level, which would be something. We’ve got an (IMO) really well-designed flood control system here–lots of parks that suck up the water that is already flooding–but it might not be enough this year.

    (And I’ve already seen journos worried that the Ford’s gravesite, which is in the park that serves as a flood plain, might be flooded. Though I think that’s higher than the downtown level, and I doubt they’d let that happen.)

  3. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    Nor did you factor in (nor could you have) the 10-12 inches of heavy, wet snow that storm Yogi dumped on us here in the Twin City west metro area since late yesterday morning. I’m taking a break from shoveling my 130 foot long driveway as I write. From what I saw on the NOAA radar site (http://1.usa.gov/117Ha8R) of this region Yogi did most of his dirty work in the upper Mississippi valley here in MN. Your maps don’t show much danger in this area but that may have changed.

  4. ANOther says:

    @Rayne: No, Rayne, the Red River runs north into Manitoba, into Lake Winnipeg and ultimately into Hudson’s Bay. We live just south of Winnipeg, and this will be the 6th major flood in the 20 years we have lived here. We are well protected, with a clay dike around the property, and should be OK this year, provided we don’t get massive rains.

  5. Rayne says:

    @emptywheel: Yeah, everything in Michigan drains to Great Lakes.

    By south I mean Ohio, Indiana, Illinois — some drains to Great Lakes, much drains to Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

    @ANOther: Headwaters of the Mississippi River stem from Red River as well as MN interior — that portion which does NOT drain toward Hudson Bay, and including the part that drains toward the Minnesota River. And since we’re looking south, drainage from Minn-Dak also feeds the Missouri River, which in turn feeds the Mississippi.

    @ex-PFC Chuck: The snowfall “forecast” map is rather iffy; am not certain if that’s a forecast based on 15-APR, since map was updated yesterday. The UMN snowfall/rain data is linked, though, could check that.

    Whatever the data today as of this reply, the flooding is a certainty. The question is whether it’s Top Five recorded flood levels.

    Oh, and the other question is whether Congress will ever catch an effing clue. ~sigh~

  6. JohnT says:


    Slight correction, the flow of the Red River drains North into Lake Winnipeg and iirc, then eventually into Hudson Bay

    Unless you mean the Red River of the South

  7. qweryous says:

    A recent Scientific American article on the topic of precipitation and flooding. Preview only at the link. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=megastorms-could-down-massive-portions-of-california

    Related blog post. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2012/11/30/mysterious-atmospheric-river/

    I know of a number of historical flooding events in the US, some prior to 1850, which were likely caused by the phenomena described. Some are surprisingly well documented in the historical record. Yet they remain absent from either collective memory or the published rainfall and river height records. This is probably because they happened before the formation of the Weather Bureau in 1870. In some cases review of weather records will probably confirm the past occurrences of the described phenomenon.

  8. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Remember when Global Warming was described as resulting in massive droughts and huge dust bowls.

    My understanding is that was never going to happen. While some areas would be drier, many would be wetter. Overall precipitation would increase as the extra heat caused more evaporation, like a greenhouse.

    Now here’s where it gets interesting. Extra precipitation causes snow in high altitudes, mountain tops stay snow covered longer, glaciers grow in height (happening), while still shrinking at the melt face, snow cover expands while thickness decreases (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/antarctic-ice-expands-against-odds/story-e6frg8y6-1226489479585), more sunlight is reflected, snow arrives later in the season, winters are extended, and global cooling commences.

    Some think the turn from warming to cooling can happen in just a few years; late snow and early snow create exponential affect that snowballs :-)

    As a Canuck who opted for sunny Australia decades ago, I am pleased to say so long to longer (any) winters, but do pity friends in Sask who have just seen record late snow falls and will also see major flooding. But we also are seeing record percipitation and flooding here in Aus.

  9. JTMinIA says:

    Here’s what I, at least, find amusing about the potential flooding this year. As you may remember, we had a pretty serious flood in Iowa City in 2008. All of the buildings that were built in the “100-year flood plain” (i.e., the flood plain that is only expected to flood once every 100 years) on the west side of the river were pretty much wiped out. FEMA said that they’d help us rebuild as long as we didn’t put the new buildings in the same (stupid) place. But the university wanted to keep them there because, you know, there’s something about a 15 million dollar auditorium in a flood plain that just screams “we’re a university, so we’re smarter than most folks, so please shut up about our building stuff in a flood plain.” So FEMA said “fine, but when they flood again, it’s your problem.” That made people nervous (because, deep down, they know it’s stupid to build in flood plains, especially when climate change suggests more floods and worse floods in the future) so the university argued with FEMA and we all spent some time in court and it was only figured out last fall. In fact, the fences around the site have only been up for a month.

    And, now, we might have another “100-year flood” just five years after the last “100-year flood.” In fact, the minor flood three days ago made it to the “10-year” level, and that didn’t include the major snow melt expected next month.

    But, luckily, we haven’t actually spent much money on what will again be washed away soon because we spend almost all of the last five years arguing with FEMA about how smart/stupid it is to put really expensive buildings in a fricking flood-plain.


  10. peasantparty says:

    The Carolinas have had some rain, but mostly high winds.

    All I know is that this is going to really hurt spring planting. Farmers cannot plow or plant wet soil.

  11. peasantparty says:

    The carolinas have had some rain, but not flooding. Mostly we have had heavy winds.

    This will affect farmers drastically because they can’t plow or plant wet soil.

  12. qweryous says:

    @JTMinIA: The term 100 year flood is misunderstood by many. 100 year flood actually means a flood which has a 1% chance of happening in any one year. There are a number of assumptions involved. One of the better explanations may be found on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100-year_flood

    I have looked for a similarly complete treatment at USGS, FEMA, NWS and other sites, and have not found one. An adequate but limited explanation of the 100 year flood concept and expected frequency distributions can be found here. http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/106/pdf/100-year-flood_041210web.pdf

  13. Peterr says:

    Sounds bad, Rayne, but things could be worse . . . strike that: things are about to get worse, courtesy of the GOP in Congress:

    USGS Threatened and Endangered Stations

    USGS to Discontinue Streamgages Due to Sequestration: The U.S.Geological Survey (USGS) will discontinue operation of up to 375 streamgages nationwide due to budget cuts as a result of sequestration. Additional streamgages may be affected if partners reduce their funding to support USGS streamgages. The USGS is working to identify which streamgages will be impacted and will post this information as it becomes available. Streamgages are used nationwide to predict and address drought and flood conditions by monitoring water availability. The USGS and over 850 Federal, State, and local agencies cooperatively fund the USGS streamgaging network, which consists of over 8,000 streamgages. When budget fluctuations occur, the network is impacted.

    The following stations have been or are about to be discontinued due to the lack of funding. If you have questions about specific stations, please contact the individual identified for each State. If you have questions about the US Geological Survey National Streamflow Information Program in general please contact Mike Norris (603-226-7847; [email protected]) or Robert Mason (703-648-5305; [email protected]).

    46 Threatened stations operated by the USGS for which the USGS does not believe full funding will be forth coming. Or a gage for which reduced funding may result in converting to stage-only.

    512 Endangered stations operated by the USGS for which the USGS has received formal communications that full funding will not be provided by current funding agency or for which the current funding agreement has expired without an indication that a new agreement is the works or highly likely. Or a gage for which reduced funding may result in converting to stage-only

    128 Recently-discontinued stations operated by the USGS for real-time data are no longer being made public. Or a gage for which reduced funding resulted in converting to stage-only.

    This being the USGS, there’s a nice interactive map at the link to show exactly where these sites are.

  14. Desider says:

    There are special sandless sandbags that inflate with water – more expensive certainly but if bought in bulk ($3-$4), certainly easier than having people spend days filling up sand. Made by a lot of different vendors, but never seem to have caught on, probably still too expensive. But at least we have $8 billion a month still for war in Afghanistan.

    “The sacks weigh only 200 grams (seven ounces) before being activated. Their semi-porous inner liner contains a gelling polymer that absorbs water and wood fibre, and can absorb up to 45 pounds of fresh water within five minutes. They last for three months once activated and are 100% bio-degradeable”

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