How Do We Find Solutions to Problems Like Extreme Flooding at Lake Champlain?

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Extreme weather, Learn

This spring’s historic flooding is not limited to the Mississippi River. While the Midwest disaster plays out southward day to day, far to the Northeast, homeowners on the shores of Lake Champlain are watching the water recede – very slowly – from the highest recorded lake levels in history.

The massive lake, stretching 120 miles along the borders of Vermont, New York and Quebec, surpassed flood stage (100 feet) by 3 feet during the past week, destroying more than 500 homes in Vermont and leaving behind pollutants from flooded farm fields. More than 200,000 people depend on the lake for their drinking water.

The record flooding followed melting of heavy snows combined with heavy rains the last week of April. Flowing north off the mountains into Quebec, where Lake Champlain empties into the Richelieu River, the high water has also flooded about 3,000 homes south of Montreal.

So, are the floods here and along the length of the Mississippi River, the promised “wetter wets” of a changing climate?

Because climate is the combined average of weather events in an area, many scientists are uncomfortable drawing direct, definitive links between any single storm, flood or drought and global warming. But they are tracking the average temperatures and precipitation levels, which in some areas may well be trending toward the anticipated “new normal” of life on earth with high levels of carbon in the atmosphere.

Others are going further and already dusting the fingerprints of climate change.

Bill McKibben of 350.org penned an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times asserting that the floods in Mississippi are a sign of the leading edge of the planetary changes to come.

The Montreal Gazette also quoted a Lake Champlain watershed expert about climate links to the lake’s unprecedented flood levels.

Occurring just after farmers had prepared their fields for spring planting, the flood has caused a larger than normal amount of phosphorus, a by-product of spreading manure and fertilizer on fields, to suffuse the lake. Environmental officials say this could worsen toxic algal blooms, which can harm fish, in the lake this summer.

The increasing likelihood of problems for the lake from runoff after heavy rain storms is one of the likely impacts from climate change explored in a recent study by the Vermont and New York chapters of The Nature Conservancy.  The report, “Climate Change in Champlain Basin,” co-authored by Curt Stager, PhD, reviews the trend of the lake’s fewer ice-covered days in winter and the effects of higher temperatures on fish species. The report also recommends steps that landowners and natural resource managers can take, such as keeping trees and other natural vegetation along the shoreline to reduce erosion and runoff into the lake.

Whether or not climate change can be implicated definitively as a cause of these floods, the people who are affected by disaster will have to deal with the aftermath (of course, the worse the disaster, the worse the damage). Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are assessing damages in Vermont, and local officials are dealing with the potential impact to the local economy and agriculture. Meanwhile the high water has delayed progress on a new bridge connecting New York and Vermont near Port Henry. The $70 million arch was scheduled to open in October, which may now be an uncertain timeline.

All this bad news points to an urgent need to better prepare ourselves for the flooding and extreme weather events that we’ve been seeing more and more of recently. The Nature Conservancy is working on the ground to build better understanding of the links between climate change and extreme weather events.

Two examples include a study we’re doing on how less snowmelt may mean a dryer Sycan Marsh Preserve in Oregon’s Klamath Basin in late summers, which could alter the wildlife habitat. We’re also working with the University of Central Florida to better understand carbon dynamics by measuring the amount of carbon stored in vegetation and soil in our 12,000-acre Disney Wildlife Preserve south of Orlando. Also, these studies are informing better conservation actions on-the-ground where they are needed going forward. For instance, in forests where forestry and timber harvesting is compatible with conservation of biodiversity and preventing carbon pollution, we work with landowners and other partners to foster responsible, long-term forest management practices.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and feature writer for The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Flickr user subadei (Recent record flood waters inundate a boat rental building at Lake Champlain).

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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