Floods and Forecasts on the Red River of the North

March 31st, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In 1997 I had the opportunity to serve on the National Weather Service Disaster Survey Team that went to Grand Forks and Fargo to investigate the role of flood forecasts in the flood disaster that year in Grand Forks. So far at least, it looks like that scale of disaster will be avoided this year due in part to good fortune, but also good decisions by communities that have few equals in fighting floods.

After my experience on the Disaster Survey Team I wrote the following paper which discussed the lessons that I drew about the role of forecasts in the disaster. The short story is that accurate prediction of flood crests in this region is simply impossible, and as a consequence, flood fighting decisions have to be made in the face of both uncertainty and ignorance. These lessons seem to have been well learned, though the challenges presented by floods in the region will remain.

Pielke, Jr., R.A., 1999: Who Decides? Forecasts and Responsibilities in the 1997 Red River Flood. American Behavioral Science Review 7, 2, 83-101. (PDF)

2 Responses to “Floods and Forecasts on the Red River of the North”

  1. Ryan Meyer Says:

    Heidi Cullen’s short presentation here at the Summit on America’s Climate Choices provides an interesting contrast to this post.

    She highlighted the narrow escape of the Fargo community as indicative of just how useful these forecasts are. This is a nice pat on the back for the forecasting community, but as Roger’s paper and the NY Times piece point out, it is not so simple. Of course, these these lessons about political and institutional complexity, and the realities of human behavior, tend to get lost, even at an event like this where folks are so diligently focused on finding adaptation solutions.

  2. 2
  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    That is ironic, as Grand Forks has become more or less forecast independent, while Fargo remains dependent on forecasts do to an inability to secure mitigation monies.