Top ten weather stories for 2009: story four

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4. Record Ice-Jam Flooding on the Red River

Map of Canada highlighting Manitoba’s Red River which recorded its second highest spring flooding in nearly 100 years

Photo of red barn surrounded by water from the Red River floods. Photo: Rod Zemianski © Environment Canada, 2009

Manitoba’s Red River recorded its second highest spring flooding in nearly 100 years. North of Winnipeg at Breezy Point and St. Clements, ice jamming caused the worst flood of the century, forcing full-scale evacuations. At the height of the flood, nearly 3,000 people left their homes – more than half from First Nations communities. Near Morris, the metres-wide Red River grew to 16 km across, submerging rich farmland and highways. Total flood claims exceeded $40 million with 500 homes damaged or destroyed.

Three principal factors led to the spring flooding:

  • Heavy autumn rains, about 43 per cent more than normal, saturated the ground just before freezing in early December, which left little room for absorbing snow melt in the spring.
  • It was a snowy winter in southern Manitoba with some 25 per cent more snowfall than normal. Additionally, heavy snowfalls and copious spring rains – more than double the norm – swelled the critical headwaters of North Dakota sending excessive waters north into Canada via the Red River and its tributaries. Seasonable spring temperatures would have enabled the Red to handle the excessive melting gradually but unfortunately that was not the case.
  • Instead, an unseasonably cold spring slowed basin snow melting, ice decaying in rivers, and overland flow from ditches and culverts. On April 1, officials worried that 90 per cent of culverts east of the Red River were still frozen solid and over half of them to the west were blocked. Ice jamming in the north-flowing Red backed up water, spilling banks and turning the flood of inconvenience into a disaster. Residents living along low-lying areas of the Red and Assiniboine rivers began sandbagging.

In mid-April, a brief warm surge of weather weakened the river ice north of Winnipeg. Massive ice slabs, some the size of cars, became moving ramparts that ripped through properties. Some residents scampered onto roofs to stay dry. Giant pans of ice standing 6 m high were shoved up on the shore and deposited more than half a kilometre from the riverbank. The ice was powerful enough to take out trees and crush and rip apart hundreds of homes and structures with devastating effect. In other places, strong winds pushed the ice at times, raising water levels to flood stage. On April 16, the Red River crested only a half a metre below the level of 1997's “Flood of the Century,” which forced 28,000 people from their homes and caused damage in excess of $500 million. This year's flood claimed two lives when an elderly couple's vehicle was swept into the river. Two months after flood waters receded, many municipalities, farmers and homeowners were still cleaning up.

In fact, as the seeding season got underway, many Manitoba fields remained waterlogged. The saturated ground, combined with the extremely wet weather and cold spring temperatures, delayed seeding in most parts of the province. Some producers in the Interlakes never did get onto their fields and 170,000 ha of Manitoba farmland went unseeded. This was one of the largest totals in recent years, triggering $21.5 million in insurance payments. Some farmers were so desperate to plant a crop they resorted to hiring an airplane to broadcast seed on their land from the air.

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