Yukon River Rerouting Shows Sudden Impact of Climate Change; Is Bonkers Crazy

 

This river is younger than, say, “Lemonade”

 

There are few things that can change the course of a river suddenly. The New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812 briefly reversed the course of the Mississippi by suddenly shoving millions of tons of water in northward, but that was temporary. Normally, (unless like in Chicago you do it intentionally) rivers change directions or reroute their course very slowly, through generations of erosion as it pokes and prods and tries to find the easiest way to flow, a grinding process that eventually levels everything in its path, though never on the mere scale of a human lifetime.

Thanks to climate change, that might not always be the case. Times?

In the blink of a geological eye, climate change has helped reverse the flow of water melting from a glacier in Canada’s Yukon, a hijacking that scientists call “river piracy.”

This engaging term refers to one river capturing and diverting the flow of another. It occurred last spring at the Kaskawulsh Glacier, one of Canada’s largest, with a suddenness that startled scientists.

A process that would ordinarily take thousands of years — or more — happened in just a few months in 2016.

Much of the meltwater from the glacier normally flows to the north into the Bering Sea via the Slims and Yukon Rivers. A rapidly retreating and thinning glacier — accelerated by global warming — caused the water to redirect to the south, and into the Pacific Ocean.

Last year’s unusually warm spring produced melting waters that cut a canyon through the ice, diverting more water into the Alsek River, which flows to the south and on into Pacific, robbing the headwaters to the north.

Think about that. If you lived there (or, I guess, if you are a tremendous liar), you could say “I remember the days when these waters flowed north, onward to the Bering Sea”, and you’d be talking about last summer.

Now, to be fair, this was a perfect confluence of conditions: the way the land was shaped there didn’t have to be too much melt and erosion for the higher ground to make its way to the lower; the channels cut my newly melted water didn’t have far to go. We’re not going to wake up one day and see that the Ohio is charging back toward Pittsburgh. But it is still a stark and terrifying reminder that climate change isn’t something happening in the distant future. It is happening now, and it is really unpredictable.

In essence, we’ve decided as a species to enter a vast generational experiment where we see what happens when we accelerate natural processes and introduce unnatural ones. The earth heats and cools, glaciers advance and melt, rivers change their courses. These things happen on unimaginable time spans. They don’t happen over the course of a century, or the life of a summer. But, thanks to our desire to turn nature into capital, that’s what’s happening.

We don’t know how it will turn out. Things will happen that we can barely even guess. But it seems short-sighted to say it won’t be enormous.

I’ll leave this with an example of what retreating glaciers mean. We all know that the glaciers carved out the Great Lakes and completely wiped out the landscape that came before them. And we know it was cold as hell. But I don’t think it is generally understood how much their immensity impacted geology, and not just topography.

They pressed down on the earth’s surface, slowly impacting it under their enormity. And as they retreated, the surface slowly started to rebound. This is a process that, tens of thousands of years later, is still happening. The impact of this can be felt right around here, in Chicago. When the glaciers first retreated, and the lakes took their present form, the ground was low enough that Michigan (and Lake Chicago before it) flowed southwards, toward the Mississippi Basin. But as the land rebounded, and glaciers cut more channels, eventually the whole Lakes basin made its way to the ocean.

Until, of course, the city of Chicago, disgusted with and sickened by the filth of its residents, reversed the course of the Chicago, turning southern Lake Michigan into an extension of the Mississippi Basin. That happened in a geologic instant. The reversal of the Yukon rivers was even quicker. It was instant.

Our impact on the planet might mimic the planet’s own cycles, as somewhat more sophisticated climate deniers claim, but that’s wildly misleading. It’s a gruesome imitation, at high-speed, a janky cassette player that suddenly turns your music into a screeching cacophony, with little regard for the consequences. It’s like jumping off the Empire State Building and saying you’re imitating the gentle swaying of a leaf on the wind. Same general direction maybe, and with the same end point, but brother, you’re fucked.

A Couple of Rainy Day Thoughts on How We’ve Altered the Landscape

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It’s been a gloomy rainy sort of day here in Chicago. The White Sox opener has been postponed, which is fine. I don’t mind delaying this 95-loss season another day. It’s not spring yet, anyway.  It’s the sort of April rain that feels like the lingering of March, the whole month of which felt gray and wet, a Smarchian sort of slog.

You look out the windows and see the dull and lumpy sky wrinkle itself in a thousand plinging puddles, and watch the puddles grow and slink off toward the sewer, and its hard to remember that it’s only been a few hundred years that rain has been allowed to land that way. It used to fall on the ground, and slowly make its way across whatever basin it found itself in, if it weren’t used up or simply evaporated, reimagining its particles into invisibility so it could fall again.

But that’s not the way it is, anymore. It’s a profound change, and the short-term effects have been, in some ways, disastrous. To build our cities, we’ve altered to way water has distributed itself around the world. We’ve paved over floodplains and changed rivers. We’ve manipulated drainage.

Look at a very minor example, the North Branch of the Chicago River. Patti Welti of DNA Info has the story.

A total of 1.67 inches fell, a record for March 30.

It wasn’t enough to push the North Branch of the Chicago River to flood, but the water did rise more than two feet during the morning and early afternoon.

How does less than two inches translate into more than two feet?

Before the Chicago area was extensively settled, the river meandered across a marsh-like geography, dispersing water over a greater space. Precipitation was absorbed by vegetation and stored in the ground, wetlands and flood plains, according to the report.

As the area became more urban, green space was paved over, wetlands were drained and the river was straightened to better collect runoff that would have previously seeped into the ground. The result is a watershed with very little stormwater capacity, the report explains.

 So much of urban history has been about how to drain marshes and swamps. There were enormous struggles in England in draining The Fens, which led to political upheaval, revolutions, and other intrigues. These were enormous marshes, the “sink of thriteen counties”, as Daniel Defoe described them. But the English managed to straighten the rivers and turn the Fens into farmland.
Or one could look at the Great Black Swamp that used to cover much of Northeast Ohio, a terrible oozy wasteland that slowed down water flowing into Lake Erie. This was a swamp that was nearly impassable by anyone who didn’t know exactly how to transverse its deep sludgy waters, and was frequently a refuge for natives, who could get through it faster than European-Americans could get around it. Draining it was an enormous accomplishment that led to the creation of cities like Toldeo, not to mention millions of acres of farmland.
Funny thing, though. It turns out the swamp helped keep Lake Erie clean, serving as a natural filter for whatever came through the basin’s rivers. The enormous runoff that resulted, combined with chemicals from the regions farms (which the swamp would have filtered) is one of the main reasons why Lake Erie has died several times. The swamp helped keep away the algae blooms that have decimated the lake.
So we don’t know. We don’t know how these experiments will end. The Chicago River was slow and windy, often more marsh than river. It wasn’t meant to be a straight channel. Maybe straightening it was the price of the city. Maybe paving over its wetlands is how we were built. And maybe it will be fine.
But a rapidly rising and fast moving Chicago River, devoid of any drainage, is, in a very literal sense, unnatural. The short-term effects of how completely we’ve altered our landscape are only beginning to show. The long-term effects are unknown. But, with the rushing clarity of a springtime flood, we know one thing: water always wins.

Thursday Quick Hits: Charlotte and Expressways; The Balance of Capitalism; and the US vs. Saudi Arabia (but only a little)

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A neighborhood set to be destroyed to make the 290 in Chicago. Image from WBEZ

We’re talking about the building of highways is one of the hidden racial histories in the US, and much more.

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