Flooding of the Red River

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The Red River located near Fargo, North Dakota, has a history of flooding due to abnormal climate conditions. Every year precautions are taken to help minimize damages that are caused by the flooding. There are four main reasons that contribute to the river flooding so often. These main reasons for the floods are: Synchrony of discharge with spring thaw, ice jams, glacial lake plain, and the decrease in gradient downstream.

The first reason that contributes to the river flooding so often is the ice melting in the spring. The Red River flows northward, and when the ice thaws, it also runs northward along the valley, causing runoff from the southern portions of the river. When the ice, river water, and runoff all join together in the northern areas, it can cause major flooding. The second problem that contributes to the Red River flooding so frequently is ice jams. Since the river flows northward, the ice created from the cold weather will also flow to the north. When the ice joins together in areas they will create an ice jam, which will build up in the northern parts of the river. These ice jams will build a dam that will stop the water flow and in turn create a flood. The third factor related to the Red River flooding so often is that the river flows into a massive ice-dammed glacial lake called Lake Agassiz. Lake Agassiz is one of the flattest expanses of land in the world (Fargo Geology). When the river floods into the lake, the results of the flooding can become very dramatic. The reason for the dramatic flooding into the lake is because the Red River is so young in age; the age of the river is about 9,200 years old. Due to the young age of the river, it has not had a chance to carve its way through the valley into the lake, which causes the flooding.

Finally, the fourth major reason for the river flooding is a decrease in gradient downstream. Gradient refers to the slope of the river. In some areas the slope of the river is five inches per mile. In other areas, the slope is only about one inch per mile. The sudden change in slopes can create the water to pool up where the slope is not as steep and create flooding.

The Red River in Fargo has had a history of floods in the past. The first major recorded flood in Fargo was in 1897. This flood had a crest of over 40 feet (Akyuz). The cause of the flood was due to an extreme amount of snowfall that year. The snowfall that year was at an estimated five feet. This flood was devastating to the city of Fargo because the city was not prepared for it. The people of Fargo started taking necessary precautions for floods after the devastating 1897 flood.

Image of the 1897 flood.
The next recorded major flood in Fargo, North Dakota happened in 1997. One hundred years later the river had a major flood again. This time the flood happened because of extreme cold temperatures and heavy snowfall. Fargo recorded 117 inches of snow that year, and the cold weather formed many ice jams. The city of Fargo received over five billion dollars worth of damage to the area.

Overland flooding in the Red River Valley, north of Fargo-Moorhead, 1997 flood. Shown is the Red River of the North (riparian woodland, lower-right toward upper-left) at its Junction with the Sheyenne River (riparian woodland, bottom edge of photo), 1997 flood. View is toward the northeast. (Photo by D.P. Schwert, April 27, 1997). (Schwert).

Another historical part of the Red River floods is due to Lake Agassiz. Lake Agassiz is a large glacial lake that is found near the Red River in Fargo, ND. The lake is believed to be one of the largest ice-marginal lakes that once covered parts of Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan in Canada, and North Dakota and Minnesota in the United States. During the melting of the glaciers, Lake Agassiz became a lake of its own and the lake’s fine claylike silt that has accumulated on the bottom is the reason for the fertility of the valleys in the Red River. Many people often...
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