Currently browsing tag

glaciers

A continental divide that runs through a valley

Now that’s pathological.

Parts of the Upper Midwest are disappearing under spring floods. The Red River of the North is at major flood stage, again, and the Minnesota River flood crest is moving downstream. It’s a pretty frequent occurrence in both of these river systems, and in part, flooding is a legacy of the glacial history of the area. The Red River flows to the north along the lake bed of Glacial Lake Agassiz, which is pathologically flat. The Minnesota River flows to the south along the channel of the Glacial River Warren, which was gouged out of the landscape by water draining from Lake Agassiz.

14,000 years ago there was direct connection between what is now the Red River basin and the Minnesota River basin. Today, there’s a continental divide – with the Red flowing toward Hudson Bay and the Minnesota flowing toward the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico. But what a strange continental divide it is – for it runs through the former outlet of Lake Agassiz, in what is now known as Brown’s Valley or the Traverse Gap. This divide is not so much a high point in the landscape, but a just-not-quite-as-low area. The little community of Brown’s Valley sits between Lake Traverse (flows to the North, forming the headwaters of the Red) and Big Stone Lake (flows to the south, forming the headwaters of the Minnesota).

Here’s what it looks like on Google Earth. Note that I’ve set the terrain to 3x vertical exaggeration, so that you have some hope of seeing the subtle topography of this area.

Croppercapture12

And here’s a very, very cool oblique photo from Wikipedia. It shows the divide looking from north to south — mostly covered by floodwaters in 2007. It’s not every day you get to see a continental divide covered in water.

800px-browns_valley_flood_07

Why does the Red River of the North have so many floods?

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

Communities along the Minnesota-North Dakota border are watching the water levels, listening to the weather forecasts, and preparing for another season of flooding. It must be a disconcertingly familiar routine, as this will be the third year in a row in which the Red River of the North reaches major flooding levels. But this isn’t merely a run of bad luck for residents in the Red River Valley, major floods are to be expected in a place with an unfortunate combination of extremely low relief and a river at the whim of snowmelt and ice jams.

The Red River of the North begins in Minnesota, near the border with North and South Dakota, and it flows northward through Fargo/Moorhead, Grand Forks, and Winnipeg before emptying into Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba. The landscape around the Red River is excruciatingly flat (Figure 1), for the Red River Valley isn’t a stream-formed feature at all, but is the remnant landscape of Glacial Lake Agassiz, which held meltwaters from the Laurentide Ice Sheet for more than 5000 years. The modern Red River has barely managed to incise into this flat, flat surface, because it slopes only very gently to the north (~17 cm/km). Instead, the river tightly meanders across the old lake bed, slowly carrying its water to the north. Topographically, this is a pretty bad setting for a flood, because floodwaters spread out over large areas and take a long time to drain away.

Topography of the US portion of the Red River Valley from SRTM data as displayed by NASA's Earth Observatoryredriver_srtm_palette

Figure 1. Topography of the US portion of the Red River Valley from SRTM data as displayed by NASA's Earth Observatory

The climate of the Red River watershed makes it prone to flooding during the spring, usually peaking in about mid-April. The area receives about 1 m of snow between October and May, and the river freezes over. In late March to early April, the temperatures generally rise above freezing, triggering the start of snowmelt. Temperatures warm soonest in the southern, upstream end of the watershed and they get above freezing the latest near the mouth of the river. This means that snowmelt drains into the river’s upper reaches while downstream the river is still frozen, impeding flow (Figure 2). As the ice goes out, jams can temporarily occur and dam or back up the river, exacerbating local flooding problems.

Red River near Oslo, Minnesota, 3 April 2009, photo by David Willis

Figure 2. Red River near Oslo, Minnesota, 3 April 2009. Here the main river channel is still clogged with ice, while surrounding farmland is underwater. Photo by David Willis of http://www.cropnet.com/.

Together the topography and climate of the Red River watershed are a recipe for large-scale flooding, and the historical record shows that floods are a frequent occurrence on the river. Usually, hydrologists talk about rivers in terms of their flow, or discharge, which is the volume of water per second that passes a point. But, when talking about floods like those on the Red River, it’s not so much volume that matters as how high the water rises (“stage”). The National Weather Service is responsible for flood prediction in the US, and they define flood stage as “the stage at which overflow of the natural streambanks begins to cause damage in the reach in which the elevation is measured.” If the water level continues to rise, “moderate flooding” occurs when “some inundation of structures and roads near streams. Some evacuations of people and/or transfer of property to higher elevations are necessary.” Further increases in water levels can bring a river to “major flooding“, when “extensive inundation of structures and roads. Significant evacuations of people and/or transfer of property to higher elevations.” That’s the sort of flooding that will happen in places along the Red River this spring, as it has many springs in the historical record (Figure 3).

Annual peak stage on the Red River at Grand Forks, North Dakota

Figure 3. Annual peak stage on the Red River at Grand Forks, North Dakota. Data replotted from the USGS, with local NWS flood stages shown.

Already, flood warnings are being issued for the Red River and its tributaries. As I’ll discuss in my next post, the long-range forecast for this spring’s floods on the Red is looking pretty grim. But as the communities along the river brace for the on-coming flood, it is important to remember that the geology and climate of the region make repeated major floods inevitable.

Anne's picks of the June literature: Humans as Agents of Hydrologic Change

ResearchBlogging.orgHow the world’s biggest river basins are going to respond to mid-century climate change…and how large reservoirs affect our measurements of global sea level rise.

Immerzeel, W., van Beek, L., & Bierkens, M. (2010). Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers Science, 328 (5984), 1382-1385 DOI: 10.1126/science.1183188

Where do 1 in 4 people live? Where do those people get their water? 1.4 billion people live in five river basins (Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, and Yellow) and those mighty rivers source some of their water in the Himalayas, where on-going climate change will have a big impact on glacier melt and seasonal precipitation. In this paper, Immerzeel and colleagues used the SRM hydrologic model and GCM outputs to simulate the years 2046-2065 under two different glacier extent scenarios, a “best-guess” and an extreme case where all glacier cover had disappeared. The five basins all behaved quite differently from each other, because each basin has a different topographic distribution. The Brahmaputra and Indus have the highest percent of glacier-covered area, and these two rivers will be the most severely impacted by projected climate change via decreases in late spring and summer streamflow, as reduced glacier melt is only partially offset by increased spring rains. Between these two basins, the authors estimate that the hydrologic changes will reduce the number of people who can be fed by 60 million people! On the other hand, basins with less reliance on meltwater will not be as bad off – in fact, the Yellow River is likely to experience an increase in spring streamflow and may be able to feed 3 million more people. To me this paper emphasizes the fact that the consequences of climate change are not going to be evenly dispensed across the world’s population and that we’ve really got an urgent task of figuring out how regional climate changes will cascade through hydrology, ecology, food security, disease, and almost every other aspect of the world on which we depend.

Fiedler, J., & Conrad, C. (2010). Spatial variability of sea level rise due to water impoundment behind dams Geophysical Research Letters, 37 (12) DOI: 10.1029/2010GL043462

Global reservoirs trap ~10,800 cubic kilometers of water – enough volume to reduce sea level by ~30 mm. But when large reservoirs are filled, the water weight locally depresses the Earth’s surface and increases local relative sea level. Thus, tide gages that are close to large reservoirs don’t record the true sea level effects of water impoundment – instead recording only about 60% of the true drop. This creates an added wrinkle in the estimation of global sea level rise over the last century, and Fiedler and Conrad compute that these reservoir effects on the geoid have caused an ~10% over-estimation in rates of sea level rise. The largest effects on sea level rise records are places where tide gages are near big reservoirs – like the east coast of North America. *

* Please note that I can’t read the full article of AGU publications (including WRR, JGR, and GRL) until July 2010 or the print issue arrives in my institution’s library. Summaries of those articles are based on the abstract only.

When it rains a lot and the mountains fall down

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

2006 debris flow deposit in the Eliot Glacier drainage, north flank of Mount Hood (Photo by Anne Jefferson)

The geo-image bonanza of this month’s Accretionary Wedge gives me a good reason to make good on a promise I made a few months ago. I promised to write about what can happen on the flanks of Pacific Northwest volcanoes when a warm, heavy rainfall hits glacial ice at the end of a long melt season. The image above shows the result…warm heavy rainfall + glaciers + steep mountain flanks + exposed unconsolidated sediments are a recipe for debris flows in the Cascades. Let me tell you the story of this one.

It was the first week of November 2006, and a “pineapple express” (warm, wet air from the tropic Pacific) had moved into the Pacific Northwest. This warm front increased temperatures and brought rain to the Cascades…a lot of rain. In the vicinity of Mt. Hood, there was more than 34 cm in 6 days, and that’s at elevations where we have rain gages. Higher on the mountain, there may even have been more rain…and because it was warm, it was *all* rain. Normally, at this time of year, the high mountain areas would only get snow.

While it was raining, my collaborators and I were sitting in our cozy, dry offices in Corvallis, planning a really cool project to look at the impact of climate change on glacial meltwater contributions to the agriculturally-important Hood River valley. Outside, nature was opting to make our on-next field season a bit more tricky. We planned to install stream gages at the toe of the Eliot and Coe glaciers on the north flank of Mt. Hood, as well as farther downstream where water is diverted for irrigation. But instead of nice, neat, stable stream channels, when we went out to scout field sites the following spring, we were greeted by scenes like the one above.

Because sometime on 6 or 7 November, the mountain flank below Eliot Glacier gave way…triggering a massive debris flow that roared down Eliot Creek, bulking up with sediment along the way and completely obliterating any signs of the pre-existing stream channel. By the time the flow reached the area where the irrigation diversion occur, it had traveled 7 km in length and 1000 m in elevation, and it had finally reached the point where the valley opens up and the slope decreases. So the sediment began to drop out. And debris flows can carry some big stuff (like the picture below) and like the bridge that was washed out, carried downstream 100 m and turned sideways.

2006 Eliot Glacier debris flow deposit (photo by Anne Jefferson)

2006 Eliot Glacier debris flow deposit (photo by Anne Jefferson)

In this area, the deposit is at least 300 m wide and at least a few meters deep.

Eliot Creek, April 2007 (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Eliot Creek, April 2007 (photo by Anne Jefferson)

With all the big debris settling out, farther downstream the river was content to just flood…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4eduMJU710]
Youtube video from dankleinsmith of the Hood River flooding at the Farmers Irrigation Headgates

and flood…

West Fork Hood River flood, November 2006 from http://elskablog.wordpress.com/2006/11

West Fork Hood River flood, November 2006 from http://elskablog.wordpress.com/2006/11/. For the same view during normal flows, take a look at my picture from April 2007: http://scienceblogs.com/highlyallochthonous/upload/2009/10/IMG_1108.JPG.

and create a new delta where Hood River enters the Columbia.

Hood River delta created in November 2006 (photo found at http://www.city-data.com/picfilesc/picc30876.php)

Hood River delta created in November 2006 (photo found at http://www.city-data.com/picfilesc/picc30876.php

And it wasn’t just Mt. Hood’s Eliot Glacier drainage that took a beating in this event. Of the 11 drainages on Mt. Hood, seven experienced debris flows, including a rather spectacular one at White River that closed the main access to a popular ski resort. And every major volcano from Mt. Jefferson to Mt. Rainier experienced debris flows, with repercussions ranging from downstream turbidity affecting the water supply for the city of Salem to the destruction of popular trails, roads, and campgrounds in Mt. Rainier National Park (pdf, but very cool photos).

In the end, our project on climate change and glacial meltwater was funded, we managed to collect some neat data in the Eliot and Coe watersheds in the summer of 2007, and the resulting paper is wending its way through review. The November 2006 debris flows triggered at least two MS thesis projects and some serious public attention to debris flow hazards in the Pacific Northwest. They also gave me some really cool pictures.

A selected few Eyjafjallajokull links

The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (which means Island Mountain Glacier in Icelandic) started out in March as a relatively quiet and tourist-friendly Hawaiian style eruption. That petered out and then a few days later, the magma reemerged subglacially, producing the spectacular ash-producing phreato-magmatic eruption that has transfixed the world and stranded all would-be European air passengers. The Boston Globe’s Big Picture coverage has been as-usual spectacular. Check out these two photo sets (15 April, 19 April). NASA’s Earth Observatory has also been producing some nice images of the ash plume. Follow them here.

And few days into the eruption, the magmatic heat produced enough glacier melt not just to fuel the ash production but also to generate an outburst flood, as captured on video below:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9sryalI57oo&feature=player_embedded]

The video above includes a rather spectacular train of standing waves, which led to some debate amongst some friends and I over whether they represented sub- or super-critical flow. Fortunately, I have access to an expert on the subject, Gordon Grant, who weighed in thusly:

The standing waves represent what is best referred to as “trans-critical flow”, that is flow that oscillates around Froude No. = 1. We have real-time (though very small scale compared to what you’re seeing in the video) measurements from Grant (1997; available on the WPG website). Basically flow on the downstream portion of the wave is accelerating (Fr >1), while flow on the upstream portion is decelerating. The flow then oscillates between Fr > 1 and Fr < 1, maintaining overall flow at close to Fr ~ 1. Cross-sectionally averaged Froude Number tends to be slightly less, due to drag at the boundary. See paper for details.

The paper to which he refers is Grant, G.E. 1997. Critical flow constrains flow hydraulics in mobile-bed streams: a new hypothesis. Water Resources Research. 33: 349-358. PDF available here: http://www.fsl.orst.edu/wpg/pubs/criticalflow.pdf

For the best scientific coverage of the on-going Icelandic eruption, you absolutely can’t miss Erik Klemetti’s Eruptions blog. Erik is a volcanologist and has been doing an astounding job of keeping up with this (and all other volcanic activity). He also benefits from an active, engaged, and informed community of commenters to keep the rest of us up-to-the-minute on volcanic activity around the world.

My picks of the November literature

It is not that there was no October literature to pick. My time to read articles simply disappeared in the lead-up to and excitement of the Geological Society of America meeting. This month, however, I am back on track and I will try to update this post as I move through the last few weeks of November.

Fussel, H-M. 2009. An updated assessment of the risks from climate change based on research published since the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. Climatic Change (2009) 97:469–482. doi:10.1007/s10584-009-9648-5
The takeaway message is this: While some topics are still under debate (e.g., changes to tropical cyclones), most recent research indicates that things are looking even worse now than we thought a few years ago. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than we anticipated, and we have already committed to substantial warming, which is currently somewhat masked by high aerosol concentrations. It is increasingly urgent to find mitigation and adaptation strategies. Not good.

Gardner, LR. 2009. Assessing the effect of climate change on mean annual runoff. Journal of Hydrology. 379 (3-4): 351-359. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2009.10.021
This fascinating article starts by showing a strong correlation (r2 = 0.94) between mean annual runoff and a function of potential evapotranspiration and precipitation. The author then goes on to derive an equation that shows how temperature increases can be used to calculate the change in evapotranspiration, therefore solving the water budget and allowing the calculation of the change in mean annual runoff. Conversely, the same equation can be used to solve for the necessary increase in precipitation to sustain current runoff under different warming scenarios.

Schuler, T. V., and U. H. Fischer. 2009.Modeling the diurnal variation of tracer transit velocity through a subglacial channel, J. Geophys. Res., 114, F04017, doi:10.1029/2008JF001238.
The authors made multiple dye tracer injections into a glacial moulin and then measured discharge and tracer breakthrough at the proglacial channel. They found strong hysteresis in the relationship between tracer velocity and proglacial discharge and attributed this hysteresis to the adjustment of the size of a subglacial Röthlisberger channel to hydraulic conditions that change over the course of the day. Cool!

Bense, V. F., G. Ferguson, and H. Kooi (2009), Evolution of shallow groundwater flow systems in areas of degrading permafrost, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L22401, doi:10.1029/2009GL039225.
Warming temperatures in the Arctic and sub-arctic are lowering the permafrost table and activating shallow groundwater systems, causing increasing baseflow discharge of Arctic rivers. This paper shows how the groundwater flow conditions adjust to lowering permafrost over decades to centuries and suggests that even if air temperatures are stabilized, baseflow discharge will continue to increase for a long time.

Soulsby, Tetzlaff, and Hrachowitz. Tracers and transit times: Windows for viewing catchment scale storage. Hydrological Processes. 23(24): 3503 – 3507. doi: 10.1002/hyp.7501
In this installment of Hydrological Processes series of excellent invited commentaries, Soulsby and colleagues remind readers that although flux measurements have been the major focus of hydrologic science for decades, it is storage that is most relevant for applied water resources problems. They show that tracer-derived estimates of mean transit time combined with streamflow measurements can be used to calculate the amount of water stored in the watershed. They use their long-term study watersheds in the Scottish Highlands to illustrate how transit time and storage scale together and correlate with climate, physiography, and soils in the watersheds. Finally, they argue that while such tracer-derived storage estimates have uncertainties and are not a panacea, they do show promise across a range of scales and geographies.

Chatanantavet, P., and G. Parker (2009), Physically based modeling of bedrock incision by abrasion, plucking, and macroabrasion, J. Geophys. Res., 114, F04018, doi:10.1029/2008JF001044.
Over the past 2 decades, geomorphologists have developed much better insight into the landscape evolution of mountainous areas by developing computerized landscape evolution models. A key component of such models is the stream power rule for bedrock incision, but some have complained that is not physically based enough to describe. In this paper, the authors lay out a new model for bedrock incision based on the mechanisms of abrasion, plucking, and macroabrasion (fracturing and removal of rock by the impact of moving sediment) and incorporating the hydrology and hydraulics of mountain rivers. This could be an influential paper.

Payn, R. A., M. N. Gooseff, B. L. McGlynn, K. E. Bencala, and S. M. Wondzell (2009), Channel water balance and exchange with subsurface flow along a mountain headwater stream in Montana, United States, Water Resour. Res., 45, W11427, doi:10.1029/2008WR007644.

Tracer tests were conducted along 13 continuous reaches of a mountain stream to quantify gross change in discharge versus net loss and net gain. Interestingly, the change in discharge over some reaches did not correspond to calculations of net loss or net gain based on tracer recovery. These results suggests that commonly used methods for estimating exchange with subsurface flow may not be representing all fluxes. Bidirectional exchange with the subsurface, like that found in this paper, is likely to be very important for nutrient processing and benthic ecology.

Please note that I can’t read the full article of AGU publications (including WRR, JGR, and GRL) until July 2010 or the print issue arrives in my institution’s library. Summaries of those articles are based on the abstract only.

My picks of the September literature

Haggerty, Roy; Martí, Eugènia; Argerich, Alba; von Schiller, Daniel; Grimm, Nancy B. 2009. Resazurin as a “smart” tracer for quantifying metabolically active transient storage in stream ecosystems J. Geophys. Res., Vol. 114, No. G3, G03014
(Roy will be talking about this work in our session at the GSA Annual Meeting next month.)

Harman, C. J.; Sivapalan, M.; Kumar, P. 2009. Power law catchment-scale recessions arising from heterogeneous linear small-scale dynamics Water Resour. Res., Vol. 45, No. 9, W09404
(Ooh, this sounds really cool. I’ve been interested in heterogeneity in watersheds for a while, and this looks like an interesting take on the topic.)

Moussa, Roger 2009. Definition of new equivalent indices of Horton-Strahler ratios for the derivation of the Geomorphological Instantaneous Unit Hydrograph Water Resour. Res., Vol. 45, No. 9, W09406

Philip Brunner, Craig T. Simmons, Peter G. Cook
Spatial and temporal aspects of the transition from connection to disconnection between rivers, lakes and groundwater
Journal of Hydrology, 376: 159-169

Astrid Lambrecht, Christoph Mayer, 2009, Temporal variability of the non-steady contribution from glaciers to water discharge in western Austria, Journal of Hydrology, 376: 353-361.
(Relevant to my Mt. Hood work.)

I. P. Holman, M. Rivas-Casado, N. J. K. Howden, J. P. Bloomfield, A. T. Williams. 2009. Linking North Atlantic ocean-atmosphere teleconnection patterns and hydrogeological responses in temperate groundwater systems. Hydrologic Processes. 23(21): 3123-3126.
(The invited commentaries (like this one) in HydroPro are almost always worth a read to see what leading hydrologic thinkers are thinking about.)

Tiwari, V. M.; Wahr, J.; Swenson, S. 2009. Dwindling groundwater resources in northern India, from satellite gravity observations Geophys. Res. Lett., Vol. 36, No. 18, L18401
(This is at least the third paper I’ve seen on this topic in the past month. It is big big news.)