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​What flood?

News | May 16th, 2014

The difference between this year’s Red River flood predictions and the resulting flood was substantial enough for residents to wonder “What happened?”

Forecasters predicted at one time that the crest could exceed 40 feet; however, they continued to lower their predictions partially due to snowfall later in the season and the resulting prolonged melt. The Red River peaked a little over 33 feet.

As a result of this difference, costly preparation for a flood that was forecasted to potentially break records ended up not being as necessary as expected, including the amount of sandbags that had been prepared.

“We do what we can to provide accurate predictions,” said Mark Ewens, data acquisition program manager for the National Weather Service. “(But each flood is) as unique as a snowflake.”

Ewens explained that the original forecasts continued to change because of recurring unforeseeable events that hadn’t yet occurred in recorded history. Because of the prolonged melt, the concrete frost eventually collapsed and a larger majority of the water went into the ground than expected.

“Had the melt occurred as it normally occurred in historical framework – late March, early April – the flood would have been much worse,” Ewens said.

Unforeseeable events and a limited historical record are not the only factors that present problems for climatologists. While technology has improved the ability of forecasters to make more accurate predictions, limitations within the technology still exist.

But many people are unaware of the different limitations, and consequently hold high standards for climatologists. According to Ewens, these standards have generally increased as climatologists have gotten better at forecasting natural events.

“We become victims of our own successes,” Ewens said. “(But climatology) will continue to present challenges to everyone in the environmental sciences.”

Because of these various limitations, preparation for natural events, such as flooding in the Red River Valley, becomes more challenging, but nonetheless imperative.

“It’s better to be over prepared than under prepared,” said Mike Williams, a Fargo city commissioner.

Williams explained that there is no single solution for flood prevention and water retention. However, with each natural event, the NWS learns more information that will help them continue to improve their forecasts while simultaneously allowing workers and residents in the Red River Valley to be able to improve preparation for these natural events.

“We are making progress towards better water management,” Williams said.

Flooding in the Red River Valley is a circular event that is a yearlong process, Ewens said. Therefore, preparation and predictions for next year’s flood have already begun.

This year’s flood threw a wild card into the historical records, but according to Ewens, the NWS will be reviewing the circumstances that led up to it in hopes of making more accurate predictions in upcoming years.

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