A train ride through American climate change

For the past week Karin and I have been travelling in the USA, starting in Denver, driving to Gunnison, then on to Grand Junction, Colorado, to catch the Amtrak California Zephyr train for a 36 hour trip to Chicago. Our final destination is a workshop on conservation of monarch butterflies and their milkweed host plants near Washington DC next week.

I’ll post something about the Gunnison leg of our journey at a later date, and of course the workshop.  But as I write the first draft of this post, we are passing through flooded Iowa farmland and I wanted to get some thoughts down about a repeating theme of our travels so far: climate change.

Our original destination in Colorado was the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), an almost legendary research venue for pollination ecologists. We were meeting up with my long-time friends and colleagues Nick Waser and Mary Price, with whom I’ve collaborated on various papers since the mid-90s. However we never made it to RMBL: unseasonably late snow had not yet been ploughed from the road up to the site and the only way in and out was with skis or snowshoes. Some hardy researchers were already there, but the limited time we had in Colorado made it impractical for us to make the journey:

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Unseasonable snow does not, of course, climate change make; but that was our first hint that there’s something odd about the weather in North America at the moment.

Fast forward a few days and we picked up the Zephyr in Grand Junction, the start of an incredible journey through spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery and then down into the flat agricultural lands of Nebraska and Iowa. We had a sleeping cabin and, following a stop in Denver, we drifted off to the slow chug-a-chug of the Zephyr’s wheels and the occasional distant whistle from the front engine – it’s a loooong train!

The next morning we were still in Nebraska and it was then that things started to get both interesting and worrisome. One of the conductors gave us a running commentary about the heavy rainfall that had caused flooding in this region during May and June – see this recent account from NASA’s Earth Observatory.  As you can see from the images below (snapped from the train as we passed, so excuse the quality), flooding is still an issue along the Platt and Missouri Rivers, both of which had over-topped their adjacent levees at various points. A conservation area, the Fontanelle Forest Preserve, had turned from woodland into wooded swamp:

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This is not the river Missouri – it’s actually about quarter of a mile beyond those trees:

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Adjacent farmland was completely flooded shortly after corn crops had been planted. Farm buildings were washed out and their occupants had been forced to leave with little notice. These are areas that do not normally flood and the impact of this heavy rain has been significant and will last long into the future:2019-06-05 09.51.37

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Infrastructure such as roads and bridges were also damaged.  The Union Pacific rail bridge across the Platt was partly washed away and has had to be rapidly rebuilt, but only after a new access road was established:

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Everywhere we looked there was flooding:

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A nearby industrial estate and trailer park had also been flooded, with a lock-up garage of classic American cars under seven feet of water, and the residents and businesses have been told to leave permanently. This area cannot be guaranteed flood-free in the future and will be leveled and allowed to return to nature:

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A local portaloo company was also flooded out and we observed the plastic toilets washed up along a lakeside that used to be a field of corn.  Superficially amusing, until you realise that this represents the loss of someone’s livelihood:

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Along the train tracks ballast had been piled up to begin a programme of raising the track bed. Residents of the nearby town of Pacific Junction (population about 470) have been told to either sell their homes to the government, and move out, or face ever-rising costs of flood insurance – see this recent local newspaper article. Pacific Junction used to be an important rail terminus and some of the families have been there for generations.   Let’s be clear what this means for these people – they are displaced from their homes, they are climate refugees in their own country.

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After we had passed through this area I chatted with one of the train stewards who mentioned that his Louisiana home had been flooded out in August 2016. He was forced to pay $400 per year flood insurance to protect his belongings and home from future events, in a part of the state that had no prior history of flooding.  “But your President says that climate change is not a problem” I probed.  He gave me a look that said more than words could ever convey. “Don’t get me started on that” he replied. A nearby passenger, a young guy, chimed in: “We’d be here all day!”  Trump’s rhetoric is changing slightly and, if anything, becoming less coherent and more deranged as he talked yesterday of “good climate” and “weather going both ways”.

All along the train route to Chicago we saw the same thing, over hundreds of miles and hour after hour – partially or completely flooded fields, crops washed away or submerged under water.  Large ponds in otherwise pristine, planted fields of parallel lines where the first growth of wheat was showing:

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Karin tells me that the flooding around the Mississippi was even worse, but I’m afraid that I slept through it; long train journeys are wonderful, but tiring!

This is just a snap shot of what climate change is doing to the USA at the moment; it’s creating climate refugees in a number of states – see this article for instance. Wildlife seems to be the only thing that’s benefiting as nature reclaims farmland and urban areas: the flooded fields we passed were full of herons, wildfowl, and other water birds. But in the longer term who knows what these changing weather patterns will bring for biodiversity and human society. The only certainty is that change is coming.

21 thoughts on “A train ride through American climate change

  1. Helen

    Interesting to learn of climate refugees in a temperate climate country. I’ve been doing a series of MOOCs with FutureLearn on the subject of climate change and the general thrust has tended towards it being other parts of the world will likely suffer but not us – though that doesn’t mean anyone was suggesting we do nothing.
    Anyway, I’m pleased for wildlife but just think what devastation there is to come!

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Helen. Yes, the focus on “others” is an interesting one. There’s no doubt that some developing parts of the world will suffer greater effects, e.g. parts of Bangladesh, but no countries will escape unaffected.

  2. daysontheclaise

    Part of the problem in the US has been how the insurance works ie if you don’t rebuild like for like on the same site you don’t get the payout. At least, that’s what we’ve been told by clients from Houston after the flood there. Your account seems to suggest that the authorities where you were have learned to break this cycle, but of course it comes at the expense of displacing people.

  3. Peter Bernhardt

    As someone living in a part of the midwest known as “tornado alley” you don’t have to convince me as to the reality of climate change. However, rivers that flood repeatedly and cyclically are well-documented in this country. For example, we expect the Mississippi river basin will flood on a 25-30 year cycle. My wife and I moved into our house January 1, 1993 and that was the year of record flooding. What you may be seeing outside your window is a natural event that’s right on time. To be polite, mid- and western American rivers tend be a little bit bigger and more complicated than British Rivers. As a hydrologist at LSU, Baton Rouge, pointed out to me back in 1985, the Mississippi river network changes course all the time leading to both the erosion and establishment of deltas. The big question then is whether America’s rivers are flooding more frequently? There should be stats and public records. Please consider reading or rereading Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit.” It was published after the author’s unhappy visit to America. Historians insist Dickens portrayed rural America as a disease-ridden swamp because he arrived in a rainy year with lots of flooding. Of course, he had plenty of other reasons to dislike the country. Also, remember the Bertie Wooster stories in New York. There’s always a British reformer who knows exactly what’s wrong with America after after a two week visit. A year after the ’93 floods in Missouri a science writer for The New York Times referred to flood plains as “Nature’s time share apartments.”

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Have a read of that piece on the NASA site, Peter: these floods are outside the envelope of what has been seen previously. Also note what the newspaper I linked to said about the population of Pacific Junction – families that have lived there for generations are having to move permanently due to these unprecedented floods.


    It’s a heartbreaking situation. The very worse part you missed. The sheer anguish and emotional brokenness of families on the drownings of their trapped livestock- thousands of head of cattle, sheep, horses and more- that had innocently trusted their owners to care for them and keep them safe. That was the refrain you heard over and over- not financial losses. And then there were the whipped, muddy, starving, knee-deep in water survivors, pressed against fences, needing help, and no one could get to them. Drones and aerial flights revealed it. They couldn’t get in to cut fences, and they couldn’t make hay drops because there was nothing but water for days. No elevated lands…

    When it happened, it was too sudden and too unreal and too widespread for any rescues to be made in advance.

    Thanks for writing about this. It really needs to stay front and center, but the TV and internet generations move on so quickly to other things…

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  7. hilarymb

    Hi Jeff – thanks for showing us this disaster and commenting on the floods et al – also interesting to read others’ comments … Just terrible for some – and will be for many when price of food increases … I won’t mention borders or Mexico or Canada … I know you’re back … all the best – Hilary

  8. Jim Bouldin

    Hi Jeff.

    Lieutenant John Gunnison–what he did and who he worked with–is one of the great (and still largely unknown) stories of American exploration and surveying. He, his botanist Friederich Creutzfeldt and topographer Richard Kern were massacred by a party of Paiute Indians in remote southwestern Utah in 1853. The latter two barely survived a disastrous epic in the Colorado mountains five years earlier, south of present-day Gunnison, in the San Juan range, led by the great American explorer John Fremont. The stories of all four are entirely fascinating. Gunnison had earlier been the chief assistant on Howard Stansbury’s epic survey of the Great Salt Lake area (1848-1850), the publication of which is an absolute classic in the literature on the exploration of the American West.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Jim, that’s interesting. Nick Waser mentioned that the town was named after an army officer, but not much else. On the Amtrak through the Rockies from Grand Junction we saw an original surveyor’s trail leading up along the side of one of the canyons, barely wide enough for a person to walk along. They were a touch bunch.

      1. Jim Bouldin

        Yes, he, Stansbury and Fremont were all members of the Corps of Topographical Engineers (an Army branch which survives to this day as the US Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for the engineering, building and subsequent administration, of many dams and reservoirs throughout the country).

        It’s too bad you couldn’t make it to Gothic to see the RMBL, it’s really a sweet place. I hung out in Crested Butte and the general area for a while some years ago and spent some time at RMBL, using their little library mostly. It’s a helluva place.

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