Flood or drought: Which should we expect?

Recent rains have been more than welcome here in the Red River basin after a summer of drought-like conditions in much of the basin and surrounding region. Given the large floods of 1997, 2010, 2011 — and smaller floods in between — you would never have thought we would be looking so anxiously to the skies for rain.

So what are we to think? Is it going to be flood or drought?

The historical records point to the trend in the Red River basin and surrounding areas to fluctuate between flooding and drought.

A variety of records dating back into the 1800s indicate that few decades have escaped flooding. Even after the exceptionally dry 1930s, floods occurred again in the 1940s.

Subsequent floods, including that of 1950, which forced evacuation of 100,000 people in Winnipeg, resulted in the Red River basin being singled out by the U.S. Congress in 1957 as a serious problem that needed remedy. Recent history has documented the problem of flooding in the basin as even more serious than formerly thought.

But floods were not the only problem. Historical records also point to periodic drought. A study commissioned by the Red River Basin Commission in 2009 identifies 11 significant drought events occurring in the Red River basin since 1897. No decade has escaped drought conditions.

The study found a duration of most basin droughts of just one to two years. Droughts lasting longer than 24 months occurred in 1909-11, 1950-57, 1960-65, 1974-79, 1979-82, 1987-92, and, of course, in the exceptional stretch from 1929-42.

Long-range predictions

Long-range predictions point to an intensifying of severe weather occurrences, whether flood or drought. The overall warming of the climate, as scientists point out, makes for more intense heat waves and resulting droughts. But, in addition, a warmed climate means precipitation tends to occur as thunderstorms in small areas rather than as region-wide rains. With more precipitation falling on smaller areas, floods can result. Recent incidents in Minot, N.D., and Duluth, Minn., have come too close for comfort.

As Mark Seeley, an expert on Minnesota climate issues, concludes, the pattern of bigger storms is already happening, and more change is expected in the next 50 years, particularly for northern latitudes.

So, what are we to expect here in the Red River basin — flood or drought? Whether looking at past record or looking ahead, the answer seems to be a certain, and even intensified, “Both!”

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