#4 – Dick Bernard: The 2009 Red River Flood as Messenger

Just 250 miles northwest of where I type, a local crisis, a threatened flood in the Red River Valley, is occurring which pleads for a dialogue dealing with long term and global implications. The news focus will be on the immediate and the local (saving someone’s home, etc.). Once the crisis passes, and the damage assessed, most will return to business as usual…until the next local crisis, wherever that happens to occur.
As I write, Fargo-Moorhead and the Red River Valley are between crests of threatened devastating floods. It would appear, because of two separate crests, that the Valley may dodge a disastrous flood in 2009, only a dozen years after the huge floods of late April 1997 which came a month later in the spring. Heavy snow, plus an early thaw this year, and a very close call with high waters in late March, may have helped avert a greater disaster in coming days. Time will tell.
Some would say that this flood and other catastrophes are random acts of nature; others would say there is evidence of the consequence of global warming. Other culprits can be claimed to be urban development, farmers draining their fields, people living in places they shouldn’t live, dikes interfering with the normal course of high water, just plain bad weather – the previous record flood, after all, was in 1897…. Of course, someone wrote a letter to the editor of the Fargo paper that God was punishing a certain clinic in Fargo….
As instant events go, any individuals speculation is as good as anyone else’s. Most of us simply don’t have the needed “data”, or we simply pick and choose what it is we wish to believe. Fantasy works, for a while, anyway.
The 2009 flooding, which began about March 25, caused me to think back to three past events which are – in my mind at least – related to the news about Fargo-Moorhead and the Red River Valley.
1. In mid-August 2005, I completed a major revision of a family history of my mother’s side of the family. Included in the text was a new chapter on a treasure-trove of letters from 1905-06 found in the attic of the old North Dakota farm house where my mother grew up. The letters had come from my Grandparents kin and others in rural Wisconsin, mostly from Grandma’s six sisters. There were over 100 of them.
The letters were very interesting. One of the letters dated July 13, 1905, said “Sunday, Maggie and Ida had a horse for themselves to church and they met an automobile and she tied the horse to a rail fence but the horse dident move and Ann Miller was in with them and she was hollering let me out.” (p. 20)
The automobile they met was a curiosity, including to the horse. The comment reminds that even in our short history, cars are a new-fangled thing.
By 2005, the automobile had long been ubiquitous in our society; the weather has seemed to be changing markedly. Significant changes? Your choice.
I was printing the book, literally, when the August 27, 2005, Minneapolis Star Tribune had a long editorial entitled “Oil’s peak: The end may be nearer, it seems.” I decided to include the editorial as an insert with the book. I put a hand-written note on the margin of the editorial: “…and we can’t ignore Hurricane Katrina & possibilities that hurricanes and such might connect to Global warming.”
The day after I mailed the book, Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Louisiana coast.
“As we speak”, in 2009, stuff is still whirring around the internet about how dumb and shiftless those people in New Orleans were for living there in the first place, for not saving themselves when the hurricane was bearing down on them, and for not relying on their own resources for their recovery.
A similar narrative is unlikely about Fargo and the flood-prone Red River Valley. Indeed, the North Dakota and Minnesota officials have already asked for massive federal aid to repair and prepare for the next flood…. There is no serious thought about relocating Fargo-Moorhead to the east or to the west to mitigate against future flood problems.
2. On March 5, 2009, I attended the annual Nobel Peace Prize Festival at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Speaking to over 500 school kids that morning, Professor Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University packed a huge amount of content into eight entertaining and enlightening minutes. (His complete talk to the youngsters and a summary video of the Festival will be on YouTube soon.).
Professor Alley is one of a team of thousands of scientists who form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change http://www.ipcc.ch/, and who co-won, with Al Gore, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change.
Professor Alley’s message to the kids on the issue was succinct: he came, he said, from Pennsylvania, whose name means “Penn’s Woods”. He gave a little history lesson starting with a chart of the Mesa Verde settlement in southwest Colorado: human activity and population there were controlled entirely by available water. If there was water, there were people; no water, no people.
In early Pennsylvania, wood was the first reliable fuel; then it became Whale Oil for lamps. “Peak Whale Oil” came in 1847, he said.
The oil age really began when the first oil well was drilled in western Pennsylvania in 1859, only 150 years ago this year. Someone 75 years old has lived a “half-life” of this Fossil Fuel era. And we’ve passed the Peak, and the demand for energy guarantees a more rapid and uncertain downhill slope.
3. In October, 2001, we were staying at a bed and breakfast in London. In the hallway was a 1927 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. One day I looked at the section on petroleum. My recollection is that the Britannica said, that in that era the U.S. produced 75% of the worlds petroleum, and even though oil had been discovered and recovered in many places by then, the only major producer elsewhere was an oil field in Persia (now Iran). The Middle East countries? None of them appeared on the chart.
Times have changed, and circumstances as well. In 1859, the U.S. population was roughly one-tenth of today’s, and motor vehicles not even a dream. In 1905, there were only 45 states and roughly one-fourth of today’s population. Cars were a curiosity. Today we have over 300,000,000 people in our country alone, and there are over 800 motorized vehicles per 1000 population (2004 data).
We don’t have 150 years to get our act together. We may not even have ten. Our addiction is killing us.
Is climate change a myth, or an ominous trend? Are we running out of affordable fossil fuel? What do we do about our insatiable appetite for “fossil algae” (Oil)? What cause in the matter of climate change are we as humans? What are the consequences for those who follow us? It should matter to us.
How we answer those questions is our choice. Our descendants will experience the consequences.
To dismiss the Fargo-Moorhead floods, and other facts as being simply local events is to be short-sighted. We have to pay attention and act.