Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Natural History Thoughts: The truth about floods…

I was on a hike one morning with a local nature club.  It was a rare morning because it was NOT raining.  Rains across the Ohio valley were quickly breaking records, and massive flooding and erosion was leaving dozens of towns scrambling for higher ground.  As I was thinking about this, I looked down and saw a young tree that had recently unfolded its leaves for the upcoming summer.  The leaves were already a deep green color, with water droplets from last nights storm still rolling off the tips.  I then looked at the stem from which the leaf had grown from, and then I realized an unsettling truth:  The large amounts of rain – the amounts of rain that led state government leaders to declare a state of emergency, had caused the young tree to gain over a foot in height within only a matter of a few months.  In other words, all of this rain had been so bad for our towns and farms was in fact very good for the local ecosystems.  The reason these floods were bad for us was because we have developed and over farmed so much land area that we were undermining nature’s ability to soak up rain, thus resulting in people dying and watching home and business become enveloped in a rush of polluted flood waters.

What we need to do is start thinking of better ways – more logical ways to reduce flood disasters.  First, we must get ourselves to realize that in natural ecosystems, catastrophic floods are rare.  They usually occur after a volcanic eruption, earthquake, or from rapidly melting glaciers.  In the Northeastern United States, we have none of these (or at least none of these that are large enough to cause massive floods).

Second, we must acknowledge the task at hand isn’t as hard as it sounds.  Building rain gardens, a small depression in a lawn, parking lot, or front yard filled with native plants, is one viable and affordable option (see Figure 1).  Water that settled into these gardens during rain events is quickly soaked into the ground or soaked up by the native plants instead of rushing into storm drains or nearby creeks and rivers.  More information can be found by clicking here.    Also, protecting natural lands – which act as a ‘sponge’ in soaking up rain or snowmelt, is critical in flood-prone towns (Figure 2).  Excess concrete and asphalt, as well as faulty gutters, are perhaps the culprit in creating damaging floods, rather than extreme weather events themselves.

Figure 1: Rain gardens, and not necessarily as elaborate as this one, are excellent at slowing runoff during storm events while they add natural beauty to the urban landscape. Well designed rain gardens to not retain standing water for very long after a storm, so mosquitoes should not be a concern.

Figure 2: Forests (as well as meadows and wetlands) in their natural state are excellent at absorbing water into the ground like a sponge. Notice the thick green ground layer at the bottom of these tall trees. Photo by Andrii Chenriak.

Finally, we must ask ourselves if it is worth having highly manicured lawns and wide roads and lots.  We may not like it when environmentalists give us the wag of the finger for overdeveloped land, but I believe the damage from floods far outweighs any economic or aesthetic excuse for not protecting our natural lands.   Do you agree?


2 responses to “Natural History Thoughts: The truth about floods…

  1. Dad May 17, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    yes I agree–Dad

    • Randi May 9, 2017 at 2:03 pm

      I once saw a speaker whose topic was diabetes make the same point you do when he opened his presentation by scanning the audience and saying, “Well I see we have a lot of myopics here this mog81nr.&#n22i; We all got it right away. Well, at least everyone who knew what myopic means.

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