The flood forecast

by Peter LaFontaine

Flyovers help us make predictions about flood season and assist relief efforts once it's started. Here, the Army National Guard looks out over the flooded Red River in 2009. (Photo by U.S. Army: Flood mud; CC BY 2.0)

Soggy spring ahead

The National Weather Service warns that the Upper Mississippi River region and the Red River region face a "significantly elevated chance" of flooding this spring. In response to the threat, Gov. Tim Walz has proposed adding $30 million to the state's Disaster Assistance Contingency Account — a rainy day fund on steroids — that was fully tapped out after 2019's array of major and minor natural disasters.

The Minnesota Legislature approved a bill last week to meet Walz's goal.

Senate Finance Committee Chairperson Julie Rosen (R-Vernon Center) backed the move, emphasizing that “[o]ne thing Minnesotans are really good at is helping out our neighbors; given the challenges we are expected to face this spring, it’s important we are prepared to give counties and communities the support they will need.”

The year after the wettest year on record

Minnesotans were hit with a few big snowstorms this winter (and March is typically our third-snowiest month), but the real culprit of this year's flooding will be last year's waterlogged ground.

2019 was the state's wettest year on record, and the soil in many places simply can't absorb much more.That means that the coming spring runoff will surge more quickly into rivers and streams, or pool in low areas with poor drainage. Other factors like October's early snowfall, which actually prevented the ground from freezing as deeply as usual, may exacerbate this effect, since the earth will thaw more rapidly as a result.

Flyovers for flood predictions

A great deal of work goes into making accurate predictions. MPR reporter Matt Sepic hitched a ride with federal pilots who are helping to model just how bad the flooding will get. Flying low enough to see snowmobile tracks on the ground, these aviators use gamma ray detectors and other high tech equipment to measure how sodden the snow is. If you've ever thrown a snowball on a warm day, you know the difference a few degrees makes.

Climate change and what you can do

Our state's changing climate is making extreme weather impacts the "new normal." We'll see how things pan out in April and May, but it would be wise to bet on another high flood season and prepare well in advance.

For more information on how floods happen and what Friends of the Mississippi River is doing to make our communities safer in the face of mounting challenges, check out our primer.

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