Friday, April 29, 2011

Rising waters in the North Country

Rising river engulfs a boardwalk and starts to spill over into public parking lot, downtown Saranac Lake, NY.  Several streets were closed to traffic, many basements were flooded, and some homes and businesses had to be evacuated.

It wasn't long ago that the news was full of stories about massive flooding in Australia, thanks to an unusual combination of La Nina rains and typhoons.  Now it's our turn up here in the North Country, but for different reasons. 

As best I can tell, our rivers are rising so unexpectedly and dangerously high right now because of several factors, including heavy spring rains and a thick snow cover that persisted through most of a winter without major warm spells that would normally have removed some of the stored water before the main runoff pulse began.  Two unlucky combinations of weather conditions on opposite sides of the planet, within just a few months of each other.

None of this can be tied directly to global warming, but these problems do make me realize that even relatively small or gradual climatic changes can have dramatic effects if they push runoff beyond whatever threshold engineers and hydrologists originally used in designing local roads, culverts, dams, shoreline setbacks, and such. 

The stream running through Bloomingdale bog was almost too high to fit under the road when this photo was taken a week or so ago; now it's even higher.

Most climate models suggest that we'll get more precipitation overall in this part of the world during the rest of this century; not a whole lot more, just a few more inches per year on average (report posted at:  But if this kind of small change eventually pushes high-water marks above what we've previously assumed was "as high as it will ever get," then the extra nudge could presumably turn an otherwise routine spring surge or summer gully-washer into a real problem, overtopping roads and bridges and dams over large areas all at once.  

Back-country road blocked by rising waters, stranding several homes on the other side of the swollen river.

On the other hand, warmer winters in coming decades might also bring more frequent mid-season thaws on average, thus releasing snowmelt into groundwater and streams little by little over several months rather than turning it all loose at once, as seems to be happening now.  Not the best situation for the ski industry, but perhaps a bit easier on people living near large water bodies.

In any case, these big North Country floods of April, 2011, will surely go down in local history as memorable - and hopefully not as the New Normal!

A friend's home near Bloomingdale, NY, with the river already covering the yard about a week ago. They've recently had to evacuate the house altogether as the water continues to rise.