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Hunting ancient floods on the northern Great Plains

Our new NSF-funded project will produce a multi-century record of extreme pre-historic floods in North Dakota and Minnesota

This morning my colleague Joe Zeleznik and I received official confirmation that the National Science Foundation has agreed to fund a 3-year study on paleoflood hydrology focused on the northern Great Plains.

This new grant will support research on the Red River of the North, which over the past century has been one of the least stationary rivers in the entire continental United States. Within the last two decades, Red River floods have caused more than $3.5 billion in direct damages to American communities and have spurred the construction or proposed construction of nearly $2.5 billion in flood mitigation infrastructure . But because the observed hydrological record for the Red only extends back to the late 19th century, alternative sources of information are needed to estimate reliably the risk of future, high-magnitude floods.

In this project, we'll produce extended flood records for the Red River of the North that span the last several centuries, drawing upon botanical field evidence that is preserved within old flood-damaged trees. This long-term perspective will allow us to address questions regarding the synchrony of flooding along the entire reach of the river, and to gauge whether flooding on the northern Great Plains is tied to local and regional climate variability. These novel flood data will also be used to determine if the 1826 Red River flood, which is currently the largest known flood in the Canadian record, was also an exceptional event in the upstream (American) reach.

Because documented occurrences of past floods can have greater influence on public perception of flood risks than standard methods used in flood-frequency analysis, our paleoflood studies will help residents evaluate their own vulnerability to Red River floods and to weigh the potential benefits of proposed infrastructure. Moreover, globally there is a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in flood frequency of magnitude at a global scale so a multi-century flood record for the Red River of the North will represent an important contribution to ongoing collaborations aiming to improve our understanding of the physical processes that control the occurrence and magnitude of floods throughout various climate states.

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