Learning from the Musselshell Valley Flooding

The last two winters in Montana should have offered a hint, if not a warning, about the floods that would ravage our region; beginning as early as March, they have lasted into summer. Some places, like the Musselshell Valley, where I live, set startling new records for high water.

Our last two winters could also reveal something larger, something about how we human beings are standing—or perhaps treading water–in the midst of a rapidly shifting climate, facing weather that is more and more extreme.

These winters now offer clues, but who knew that winter 2010 would remain so cold that snow-cover would blanket the Central Montana prairie from November nearly to April? That was this region’s longest period of uninterrupted snow-cover since the record-setting winters of 1978 and ‘79.

And who knew the next winter, 2011, would in certain ways surpass the one previous? Particularly in the Missouri River Basin, near-record snowpack combined with relentless rains to load up streams and rivers.

This year’s early floods tended to occur when rain or melting snow pooled up behind un-melted ice dams. This year’s last floods–unless they have already happened–will be triggered by hot days melting the remaining mountain snows.

Climate scientists have been warning that weather all over the planet will become ever more erratic and extreme. Their long-term projection for Montana, especially east of the Rockies, includes less snow and rain, reduced snow-cover on the plains, reduced snowpack in the mountains, faster melting and earlier run-off, leaving rivers diminished in summer, when we most need irrigation.

Do our last two cold wet Montana winters put the lie to this scenario? The part of me that is a gardener says: I hope so! I want more rain, not less, in our semi-arid country.  But just as Earth’s warming atmosphere melts more ice-fields, sending more moisture into the skies, so it also sends more energy.  Precipitation may fall more often as hail, not rain. Rain may blow in on stronger winds–even tornadoes.

When I was growing up in Central Montana, tornadoes were rarely seen or heard of. Tornadoes were for places like Kansas.  Today, funnel clouds frequently appear, and some touch down, as they do further north in Alberta and Saskatchewan. This year they’ve been reported in places truly unexpected to me: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts.

Climate scientists assert that their studies cannot prove any particular weather event has been caused by global warming; what they do is add up events and attempt to discern trends.  However, this can be said: pay attention to weather around the planet and you’ll observe that “colder and wetter” in one region means “hotter and drier” somewhere else.

This spring, while snows and rains did not abate here in Montana, to our south in Arizona, long drought allowed a huge fire to rage week after week. To our north, in the forests of northern Canada, unusually dry weather led to massive fires that burned large chunks of forest, destroyed houses, threatened towns.

Excess water in the Missouri-Mississippi Basin was balanced by so little water in the rivers of Europe that nuclear power plants (enormous consumers of water) began to be shut down. This–along with the ongoing earthquake-tsunami-nuclear power catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan– may have prompted political leaders in Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere to call nuclear power too dangerous, too expensive, too uncertain, and advocate moving beyond it.

That’s one response, triggered by extreme drought. A more localized response–to a monster tornado—takes us to Greensburg, Kansas.

On the 4th of May, 2007, the town was able to sound its warning siren for 20 minutes before a tornado–wider then the town, with 200-mile-an-hour winds–roared through. The siren saved lives, but virtually no buildings survived.

Like much of rural planet Earth, Greensburg is mired in steep decline; its 2010 population–seven hundred seventy-seven–is half of the count just ten years before. With nothing more to lose, the city council must have decided to devote whatever insurance and disaster-recovery money arrived, to turning Greensburg truly “green.”

The result, a council resolution: all new buildings will meet the highest standards of energy efficiency; windpower (from ten turbines) will supply the town’s electricity; solar and other cost-effective energy strategies will be pursued.

A similar build-for-the-future-awareness would be useful here. In the Musselshell Valley, before replacing dams, irrigation ditches, roads and bridges, before trying to rehabilitate homes or businesses that spent too many days in up to eight feet of water, we need to consider how quickly these human structures were overwhelmed–and could be again.

Assessing where we are and how to live within our means is something we need to do all over the planet: town by town, valley by valley.

From the Musselshell River Valley, I’m Wilbur Wood, speaking for AERO, Montana’s Alternative Energy Resources Organization. Since 1974, AERO has been building sustainable agriculture and energy.

This commentary aired on Montana Public Radio on July 21, 2011

This entry was posted in AERO on the Air, What's New. Bookmark the permalink.