Red River Rising: a Top-Ten Fargo Flood in 4 of the Past 5 Years

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:44 PM GMT on April 29, 2013

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The Red River at Fargo, North Dakota surpassed major flood level on Sunday and continues to rise, with a peak expected Wednesday at the 9th highest flood level observed since 1897. On Friday, the President an emergency declaration for North Dakota because of the flooding, and millions of sandbags have been filled in anticipation of the huge flood. This year will be the fourth time in the past five years that Fargo has experienced a top-ten flood in recorded history. Flood stage is eighteen feet, and the Red River has now reached flood stage at Fargo for an astounding nineteen of the past twenty years, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to this remarkable stretch of flooding (which began in 1993), the river flooded in just 29 of 90 years. The Army Corps of Engineers calculates that in the last twenty years, the Red River has had ten 1-in-10 year floods--one every two years, on average. Two of these floods (1997 and 2011) were greater than 1-in-50 year floods, and one (2009) was a 1-in-100 year flood. That year, the Red River hit a record high-water mark of nearly 41 feet, or 23 feet above flood stage. Thousands of people had to leave home for higher ground, and about 100 homes were badly damaged or rendered unlivable. This year's flood will be somewhere between a 1-in-10 year to 1-in-50 year flood. Since a 1-in-10 year flood, historically, has a 10% chance of occurring in a given year, the incidence of flooding along the Red River over the past twenty years has clearly been extraordinarily abnormal.


Figure 1. View of the Red River of the North at the Fargo gauge taken on April 24, 2013 (top) and April 29, 2013 (bottom.) The river rose from 17' on the 24th (flood stage is 18') to 31' on the 29th. Image credit: USGS.

Reasons for this year's flood: unfavorable weather conditions
The USGS cites five weather factors that can act to increase flooding along the Red River. Four out of five of these factors occurred to a significant degree this year:

1) Above-normal amounts of precipitation in the fall of the year that produce high levels of soil moisture, particularly in flat surface areas, in the basin. North Dakota had its 9th wettest fall since 1895 during 2012.

2) Freezing of saturated ground in late fall or early winter, before significant snowfall occurs, that produces a hard, deep frost that limits infiltration of runoff during snowmelt. Fargo had temperatures that hit 50°F on December 2 - 3, 2012, followed by a sudden plunge to below-freezing temperatures that began on December 7. Temperatures remained below freezing the rest of December, and this froze the saturated ground to a great depth.

3) Above-normal winter snowfall in the basin. Fargo received 68.4" of snow during the winter, which is well above the city's average of 50".

4) Above-normal precipitation during snowmelt. Fargo has received 2.06" of precipitation so far this April, compared to the average of 1.23".

5) Above-normal temperatures during snowmelt. Fargo got lucky here. High temperatures in Fargo have been above average only two days during April, on the 26th and 27th.


Figure 2. Current and forecast flood stage for the Red River of the North at Fargo, ND. The river passed major flood stage on Sunday, and is headed for a crest near 35.5' (which is 17.5' above flood stage) on Wednesday. You can access images like these using our wundermap for Fargo with the "USGS River" layer turned on. Click on the icon for USGS station 05054000, then hit the "click for graph" link.

Reasons for flooding: increased urbanization
Urbanization has had a major impact on increasing flooding not only along the Red River, but in every river basin in the U.S. Many cities and developed areas are located in flood plains next to major rivers and their tributaries. Highways, streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and buildings now cover large areas of the ground that used to absorb excess rain water and slow the rate at which run-off from precipitation and melting snow reached rivers. By developing large portions of our flood plains, run-off now reaches rivers more quickly, generating higher floods.

Reasons for flooding: building more levees and flood defenses
Defending ourselves against floods has made floods worse. Every time a new levee is built, or an old flood wall raised in height to prevent overtopping, more and more water is forced into the river bed, which raises the height of the flood. Flood waters that used to be able to spread out over their natural flood plains are now forbidden from spilling out over newly developed land in flood plains. For example, a 2010 proposed improvement to the flood defense system in Fargo could cause a 4 - 10 inch rise in floods immediately downstream from the city, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.


Figure 3. Peak flow of the Red River at Fargo, North Dakota from 1901 - 2012. Three of the top five floods since 1901 have occurred since 2009. The projected crest for 2013 would be the seventh greatest flood since 1897. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lists the 10-year flood level for the Red River at Fargo to be 10,300 cubic feet per second (cfs), and a 50-year flood to be 22,300 cfs. A 10-year flood, historically, has a 10% chance of occurring in a given year. In the last twenty years, the Red River has had ten 10-year floods--one every two years, on average. Two of these floods (1997 and 2011) were greater than 1-in-50 year floods, and one (2009) was a 1-in-100 year flood. This year will be the fourth year out of the past five with a greater than 1-in-20 year flood. Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey.

Reasons for flooding: precipitation is increasing
Over the past century, precipitation over the Red River of the North drainage basin in Eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota has increased by about 15%--more than any other region of the country. This fits the pattern expected by climate change models, which predict that winter and spring precipitation will increase by another 15% by the year 2100 over the Red River of the North drainage basin. As the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air. According to the 2007 IPCC report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. Satellite measurements (Trenberth et al., 2005) have shown a 1.3% per decade increase in water vapor over the global oceans since 1988. Santer et al. (2007) used a climate model to study the relative contribution of natural and human-caused effects on increasing water vapor, and concluded that this increase was "primarily due to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases". This was also the conclusion of Willet et al. (2007).


Figure 4. The colors on the map show annual total precipitation changes (percent) for 1991-2011 compared to the 1901-1960 average, and show wetter conditions in most areas (McRoberts and Nielsen-Gammon 2011). The bars on the graphs show average precipitation differences by decade for 1901-2011 (relative to the 1901-1960 average) for each region. The far right bar is for 2001-2011. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC/CICS-NC. Data from NOAA NCDC.) Note that precipitation over the Red River of the North drainage basin in Eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota (outlined in red) has increased by about 15%--more than any other region of the country. Image credit: National Climate Assessment Draft, 2013.


Figure 5. Projected seasonal precipitation change for winter and spring (percent) for 2071-2099 (compared to1901-1960) as projected by the climate models used to formulate the 2013 IPCC climate change report, assuming we keep emitting heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at current rates. Teal indicates precipitation increases, and brown, decreases. Hatched areas indicate confidence that the projected changes are large and are consistently wetter or drier. In general, areas that are wet are expected to get wetter, and areas that are dry will get drier. White areas indicate confidence that the changes are small. The Red River Valley is expected to see a precipitation increase of at least 20%, which would lead to bigger and more frequent spring floods. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC. Data from CMIP5; analyzed by Michael Wehner, LBNL.) Image credit: Preliminary draft of the 2013 U.S. National Climate Assessment report.

A permanent fix for Fargo's flooding problems: a $2 billion diversion canal?
As the population continues to expand, development in flood plains and construction of new levees and flood protection systems will continue to push floods to higher heights. With global warming expected to continue and drive ever higher precipitation amounts--falling preferentially in heavy precipitation events--it is highly probable that flooding in the Red River Valley--and over most of the northern 1/3 of the U.S. where precipitation increases are likely (Figure 5)--will see higher and more frequent spring floods. With these higher and more frequent floods comes the increased risk of multi-billion dollar disasters, when a record flood event overwhelms flood defenses and inundates huge areas of developed flood plains. Obviously, we need to make smart decisions to limit development in flood plains to reduce the cost and suffering of these future flooding disasters.

A permanent fix for Fargo's flooding woes may lie in the construction of a 36-mile long canal that would steer flood waters around Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota, according to an April 28, 2013 Associated Press article. The proposed canal could cost $2 billion and take ten years to complete, but has drawn strong opposition from farmers, homeowners and businesses who lie in the path of the proposed diversion channel. The http://www.redriverbasincommission.org/ has the latest long-term options on new flood control options for the Red River.

References
Kunkel, K. E., D. R. Easterling, K. Redmond, and K. Hubbard, 2003, "Temporal variations of extreme precipitation events in the United States: 1895.2000", Geophys. Res. Lett., 30(17), 1900, doi:10.1029/2003GL018052.

Groisman, P.Y., R.W. Knight, T.R. Karl, D.R. Easterling, B. Sun, and J.H. Lawrimore, 2004, "Contemporary Changes of the Hydrological Cycle over the Contiguous United States: Trends Derived from In Situ Observations," J. Hydrometeor., 5, 64.85.

McRoberts, D. Brent, John W. Nielsen-Gammon, 2011, "A New Homogenized Climate Division Precipitation Dataset for Analysis of Climate Variability and Climate Change," J. Appl. Meteor. Climatol., 50, 1187–1199.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/2010JAMC2626.1

Milly, P.C.D., R.T. Wetherald, K.A. Dunne, and T.L.Delworth, Increasing risk of great floods in a changing climate", Nature 415, 514-517 (31 January 2002) | doi:10.1038/415514a.

Santer, B.D., C. Mears, F. J. Wentz, K. E. Taylor, P. J. Gleckler, T. M. L. Wigley, T. P. Barnett, J. S. Boyle, W. Brüggemann, N. P. Gillett, S. A. Klein, G. A. Meehl, T. Nozawa, D. W. Pierce, P. A. Stott, W. M. Washington, and M. F. Wehner, 2007, "Identification of human-induced changes in atmospheric moisture content", PNAS 2007 104: 15248-15253.

Trenberth, K.E., J. Fasullo, and L. Smith, 2005: "Trends and variability in column-integrated atmospheric water vapor", Climate Dynamics 24, 741-758.

Willett, K.M., N.P. Gillett, P.D. Jones, and P.W. Thorne, 2007, "Attribution of observed surface humidity changes to human influence", Nature 449, 710-712 (11 October 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06207.

Links
A good way to track the flooding event is to use our wundermap for the Red River with the USGS River layer turned on.

The Fargo Flood webpage of North Dakota State University, Fargo, has some excellent links.

I'll have a new post on Wednesday at the latest.

Jeff Masters

Fargo Flood 2009 - Elm & 15th Ave. N. (tliebenow)
Picture says it all. Clay dike built to contain the Red River in North Fargo.
Fargo Flood 2009 - Elm & 15th Ave. N.

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in 72 hrs the winds begin
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 174 Comments: 54473
Quoting Grothar:
Finally picking up something forming.

gee dont say that GRO..its coming to florida.
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Strong wind shear

Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26527
Quoting Grothar:
Finally picking up something forming.



Can you make that thing turn left, well, hop OVER Houston first, then go a little North?
Member Since: August 4, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 3276
Finally picking up something forming.

Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26527
You guys are hogging all the rain....
Member Since: February 29, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 5928
SPECIAL WEATHER STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TAMPA BAY AREA - RUSKIN FL
350 PM EDT TUE APR 30 2013

FLZ057-302030-
HIGHLANDS-
350 PM EDT TUE APR 30 2013

...STRONG THUNDERSTORMS WILL AFFECT NORTHERN HIGHLANDS COUNTY...

NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR INDICATES A THUNDERSTORM
LOCATED NEAR LAKE PLACID...MOVING NORTHEAST AT 15 MPH...WILL AFFECT
LAKE PLACID...LAKE ISTOKPOGA AND SEBRING REGIONAL AIRPORT...UNTIL 430
PM EDT.

GUSTY WINDS 35 TO 45 MPH WILL OCCUR. HAIL UP TO DIME SIZE IS
EXPECTED.

&&
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309


Was talking about this, over SoCal....
Member Since: February 29, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 5928
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Quoting CybrTeddy:


12z ECMWF is not showing anything remotely subtropical off Florida (interesting spinup though in the northern Atlantic however)


We were talking about California. I think, weren't we VR46L?
Member Since: February 29, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 5928
Coral Gables, FL: heavy rain caused flood waters to enter businesses along Miracle Mile & Galiano St.
Member Since: October 27, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 2026
you folks in WPB etc stay alert this afternoon,its coming eastward...
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Quoting PedleyCA:


Time will tell. Keeper was showing some activity about the same period. Take anything we can get. Deluges OK.


12z ECMWF is not showing anything remotely subtropical off Florida (interesting spinup though in the northern Atlantic however)
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 259 Comments: 24193
stay safe down there...............SPECIAL WEATHER STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE MIAMI FL
340 PM EDT TUE APR 30 2013

FLZ066-070-302015-
HENDRY FL INLAND COLLIER COUNTY FL
340 PM EDT TUE APR 30 2013

...A SIGNIFICANT WEATHER ADVISORY IS IN EFFECT FOR SOUTHERN HENDRY
COUNTY...NORTHERN COLLIER COUNTY...FOR FREQUENT TO EXCESSIVE
LIGHTNING...GUSTY WINDS FROM 45 TO 55 MPH...UP TO NICKEL-SIZED
HAIL...

* UNTIL 415 PM EDT

* AT 335 PM EDT...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE METEOROLOGISTS DETECTED A
STRONG THUNDERSTORM 6 MILES NORTHEAST OF AVE MARIA...AND MOVING
EAST AT 5 MPH.

* THE STORM WILL AFFECT...
SUNNILAND...
AND SURROUNDING COMMUNITIES.

FREQUENT TO EXCESSIVE LIGHTNING...GUSTY WINDS FROM 45 TO 55 MPH...UP
TO NICKEL-SIZED HAIL...TORRENTIAL DOWNPOURS...OR A COMBINATION OF
THESE ARE POSSIBLE. LIGHTNING IS THE NUMBER ONE WEATHER RELATED
KILLER IN FLORIDA. TREES AND OPEN SHELTERS OFFER NO PROTECTION. THESE
WINDS CAN DOWN SMALL TREE LIMBS AND BRANCHES...AND BLOW AROUND
UNSECURED SMALL OBJECTS. SEEK SHELTER IN A SAFE BUILDING UNTIL THE
STORM PASSES.
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
705. VR46L
Lots of Moisture about !!

Member Since: March 1, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 6927
geez its almost like summer here right now wow its hot and humid.
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Quoting kwgirl:
I was afraid of that. I have a few spots under my Mobile home that have been torn open to repair my water pipes. Not that there is a hole to get into the trailer other than the dryer vent. Maybe they will be happy between the wood and the insulation.

The nice part about possums as pets is that they don't need rabies shots.

Some years ago had a freeloader that would come in a cat door and eat cat food in the house. Was mysterious because it would hear you coming and hide under furniture. Finally set a trap outside and bingo within an hour. It sure stank though.

Moral: don't set the trap inside the house.
Member Since: May 18, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 6061
Quoting ncstorm:


I sure would like to know the OSHA safety record for this job.."421 days free of Alligator Injuries" and then this guy almost goes and ruins the streak..
yeah i guess the public was in danger so he had to do it..
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Photos of the floodings in the San Juan Metroflex this afternoon. Look at the gas station and the massive traffic jam.






Member Since: April 29, 2009 Posts: 75 Comments: 14338
well we in florida needed rain..mother nature heard us.
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Quoting LargoFl:
he was snapping at the cars just north of me a ways.................


I sure would like to know the OSHA safety record for this job.."421 days free of Alligator Injuries" and then this guy almost goes and ruins the streak..
Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 13 Comments: 15699
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
XX/XX/XX




wow look at blob explode in size whew and its coming this way
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Tropical Discussion this afternoon:

AN UPPER LEVEL LOW IS CENTERED OVER SE TEXAS NEAR 30N96W. UPPER LEVEL DIFFLUENCE SE OF THE CENTER IS
ENHANCING THE CONVECTION OVER THE CENTRAL GULF. EXPECT THE CONVECTION TO MOVE TO THE NE GULF OVER THE NEXT 24 HOURS.
Member Since: May 18, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 6061
XX/XX/XX




Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 174 Comments: 54473
Severe probabilities for Tampa Bay area...............Probabilities are for a severe weather event occurring within 25 miles of your location.
Thunderstorm probability >10% MDT=Tornado:15% ; Wind:45% ; Hail:60%
SLGT=Tornado:5-10%; Wind:15-30%; Hail:15-30% HIGH=Tornado:>30% ; Wind:>60% ; Hail:>60%
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Quoting VR46L:
The Euro is back on the SUBTropical Solution and nasty storm for Ped Too!



Time will tell. Keeper was showing some activity about the same period. Take anything we can get. Deluges OK.
Member Since: February 29, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 5928
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Quoting docrod:


Agreed on the teeth thing. 'bout 7 years ago one manage to find a big enough gap in my dryers vent hole to camp and hide behind the washer. "Pet" is not a word I would use.

G'Day kwg
I was afraid of that. I have a few spots under my Mobile home that have been torn open to repair my water pipes. Not that there is a hole to get into the trailer other than the dryer vent. Maybe they will be happy between the wood and the insulation.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Spotty but some are getting absolutely drenched. In the 2-4 in category personally in Jupiter.

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 174 Comments: 54473
he was snapping at the cars just north of me a ways.................
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Our house is a very fine house

Better late than never, only 22 posts late....... lol
Member Since: February 29, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 5928
Ryan Maue‏@RyanMaue1 min
ECMWF 12z takes cut-off NE over Great Lakes, weakens Day6-7. Couple days reprieve of warmth then another Arctic blast Link
Member Since: October 27, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 2026
wow that blog in the gulf sure has alot of rain with it....
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
WPB you have another strong batch of rain coming your way later from the west coast moving slowly eastward.......
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
they have to up these totals huh.................................well it WAS created at 5:30 am before south florida's deluge whew..6 to 8 inches wow
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
681. VR46L
The Euro is back on the SUBTropical Solution and nasty storm for Ped Too!

Member Since: March 1, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 6927
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
wx balloons....



btw, go Hawks.
Member Since: February 11, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 9731
FLASH FLOOD STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE MIAMI FL
257 PM EDT TUE APR 30 2013

FLC086-302030-
/O.CON.KMFL.FF.W.0001.000000T0000Z-130430T2030Z/
/00000.0.ER.000000T0000Z.000000T0000Z.000000T0000 Z.OO/
MIAMI-DADE FL-
257 PM EDT TUE APR 30 2013

...A FLASH FLOOD WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 430 PM EDT FOR EAST
CENTRAL MIAMI-DADE COUNTY...

AT 250 PM EDT...LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS REPORTED FLASH
FLOODING OVER THE WARNED AREA. IN AND AROUND THE MIRACLE
MILE...WATER HAD INUNDATED PARKING LOTS...STREETS...AND ENTERED
STRUCTURES.

ALTHOUGH HEAVY RAIN HAS ENDED...FLOODWATER WILL TAKE SOME TIME TO
RECEDE...THUS THE FLASH FLOOD WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS...

DO NOT DRIVE YOUR VEHICLE INTO AREAS WHERE THE WATER COVERS THE
ROADWAY. THE WATER DEPTH MAY BE TOO GREAT TO ALLOW YOUR CAR TO CROSS
SAFELY. MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND.

&&

LAT...LON 2578 8033 2578 8022 2573 8025 2572 8035

$$
KONARIK
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
677. VR46L
Quoting FtMyersgal:


Oh boy!


Aye ... thought It might be an Irish thing ... superstitions and all.... sure we still believe in fairies and Leprechauns ;)
Member Since: March 1, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 6927
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Quoting kwgirl:
I don't know. The one I saw on my porch eating the cat food had pretty sharp pointy looking teeth. Still a wild animal in my book. Good Afternoon all.


Agreed on the teeth thing. 'bout 7 years ago one manage to find a big enough gap in my dryers vent hole to camp and hide behind the washer. "Pet" is not a word I would use.

G'Day kwg
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Quoting VR46L:
darn I hate my previous post number *shudders*


Oh boy!
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This is the best our state drought monitor map has looked in a LOOONG time (at least for north-central Colorado):



Looks like the southeast plains of Colorado are still hurting... I wouldn't be surprised to see one or two large brush fires out there if things don't turn around soon.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 39309
Quoting PalmBeachWeather:
I saw on the local news a lady adopted a possum as a pet.......... Very cool
I don't know. The one I saw on my porch eating the cat food had pretty sharp pointy looking teeth. Still a wild animal in my book. Good Afternoon all.
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Quoting VR46L:


In case Ped is not around...

Our House Crosby Stills Nash & Young
LOL VR
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
669. VR46L
darn I hate my previous post number *shudders*
Member Since: March 1, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 6927

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About

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.