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Extreme Swings in Climate Cycles Could Jeopardize the Socioeconomic Stability in the Northern Great Plains Region

reported by Joseph Littbarski

(GRAND FORKS, ND) -- Recently completed studies reconstructing the historical climatic trends for the last 2000 years in the northern Great Plains show that frequent alternating climatic cycles of drought and wet periods are typical for this area. These cycles could last more than 160 years, and future ones could be more severe than those on our very limited record books.

The results of this study suggest that this region is likely to experience a significant drought within the next few decades. Without timely water management strategies, the drought conditions will limit the socioeconomic development of the region and may even threaten the sustainability of current living conditions.

The 3-year project was conducted on lake bottom sediments of Devils Lake, North Dakota, by the University of North Dakota's Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the St. Croix Watershed Research Station at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

"The results of this study support previous studies and provide more precise definition of the climatic cycles we have touted for over three decades," said EERC Director Gerald Groenewold.

"Our region is obviously in a wet cycle," said Ed Steadman, EERC Senior Research Advisor. "In spite of the devastating effect of reoccurring floods in recent history, a long-term drought will be far more catastrophic to our region," he said.

Population in North Dakota and western Minnesota remains relatively stable, but highly populated areas in eastern North Dakota such as Fargo and West Fargo are growing significantly. With that, there is a substantial increase in demand for water supplies. Water demand for the Red River Valley is expected to more than double by the year 2050.

Groundwater resources in North Dakota were extensively depleted during the drought of the 1930s to offset the water shortage. For example, the Moorhead Aquifer dropped from 6 feet below ground level in 1913 to more than 190 feet below in 1948. Similarly, the West Fargo Aquifer system has declined dramatically as well. Aquifers in the Fargo area have decreased about 2 feet a year for the past 15 years.

"Continued withdrawal combined with water table decline in larger areas do not allow for aquifer replenishment," said Jarda Solc, EERC Senior Research Manager. "These trends are even more alarming with respect to the fact that the regional hydrologic system, as documented in the EERC project, is currently at its wet stage and the aquifer usage will considerably increase once the system moves to the dry cycle," he said.

"Science is proving that dramatic swings in climate cycles are inevitable in the northern Great Plains," Groenewold said. "Without the development and implementation of substantial, long-term, regional water management strategies, economic growth will, at best, be limited. Indeed, we may not be able to maintain our current economy. The public and decision makers need to recognize the magnitude, severity, and urgency of this issue. Our greatest challenge is to admit we have a problem."

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