So your family has been farming a particular spot of North Dakota for the last 130 years. When you were a kid, there was a lake off in the distance, Devil’s Lake, that was good for perch fishing, but horrible for drinking because of high salt and sulfate levels. Over the last few years you’ve watched as the lake rose and rose. The rise sped up in the last 20 years as global warming increased rainfall. Since 1993 it has come up 11 meters. Now your farm is lost:
You can’t get to it any more. Hundreds of square miles have been flooded around you. Nearby villages have been lost, and the town of Devil’s Lake (pop 7000) has only been saved by a levee built by the Army Corps of Engineers. The roads around the lake have been washed out, and the rail lines are about to go too.
The lake sits in a closed basin, and so collects all the rain that falls. The high levels of salt and sulfates are because there’s no place for them to go. The lake is now at its highest level in recorded history. About a billion dollars has already been spent trying to stop it. The projects started in the 70s and have gotten more and more desperate since then. The lake’s rise has exceeded all predictions. If it goes up another 1 or 2 meters, it’ll break through to the Sheyenne River and dump its nasty, polluted gunk into the water supplies of Minnesota and Manitoba. If it happens suddenly, it could cut a channel and send a wall of bad water downstream. The Corps is trying to stop that by releasing it gradually, but nobody wants that stuff near their reservoirs.
It’s a vicious story, and is told well in the latest issue of American Scientist: “Runaway Devil’s Lake” by Douglas Larsen. He’s a limnologist who first saw the lake in 1964, when it was 1/32 of its current volume. It had an area of 80 km² then and it’s at 815 now.
So it takes a billion dollars to save the land of a few thousand people, and it’s not even clear it’ll work. What will it take as the entire ocean rises?
it recalls that fine book by McPhee, The Control of Nature…