Spring Flooding of 1997

Contributing Climatic Conditions

  1. heavy autumn precipitation
  2. extraordinary winter snowfall
  3. less than ideal snowmelt scenario
  4. heavy early spring precipitation

Fall/Winter of 1996-97

heavy autumn precipitation

Much of Minnesota received six or more inches of precipitation in late October and November, 1996. For many areas such amounts were four or more inches above normal. Over most of Minnesota, such amounts ranked above the 95th percentile, that is, 'a one in twenty year event'.


extraordinary winter snowfall

Over the course of the 1996-97 winter, much of Red River and upper Minnesota River basins, and the north shore of Lake Superior received over six feet of snowfall. Some areas ended up with over eight feet. Those amount were as much as two to three times average snowfall. At Fargo, for instance, 117.0 inches fell in the 1996-97 season which may be compared with their long term average snowfall of 38.9 inches and their old seasonal record of 89.1 inches.

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The Snowfall map shows that the heaviest snows extended eastward from the Fargo area to the north shore of Lake Superior. In much of the Red River Valley, the upper reaches of the Minnesota River, and along the north shore, those snowfalls were very near or above the record conditions in the 60 seasons from 1931 to 1991 (that is, the areas that RANKed 99th percentile or greater).

heavy early spring precipitation

At the beginning of the melt period, on April 5-6, 1997, two or more inches of precipitation (rain and snow) occured in western MN. At Crookston, 3.63 inches fell in two days. In an 100 year record there, the largest two-day total for March or April had been 2.35 inches. Normal monthly April precipitation is approximately two inches for the region.


less than ideal snowmelt scenario

This season, few mid and late winter melting days occured. Large temperature fluctuations occured in early April. Temperatures were up to 10 degrees above normal in the first week of month followed by up to 20 degrees below normal in second week of the month.

Past Record Snowfalls and Floods

Winter of 1896-97 .. A Century Ago

Some past floods have been devastating. In particular the flood of 1897 is responsible for many of the previous record river levels (see 1897 Red River flood picture on NDSU page and the 1897 'Climate and Crops' article) ...

The 1896-97 snowfall rank shows that perhaps 10% of the Minnesota portion of the Red River watershed experienced record snowfall during that season. The percent of the basin experiencing record conditions this year appears to be more than 40% of the area with most of the record condition upstream from Grand Forks. By taking the ratio of this season's snowfall, it can be seen that over large portions of the Red River Valley the snowfall was 25 to 50% greater than what occured in 1896-97.

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Years with Record Snowfall

In a 60 year snowfall record (of 1931-1991) no one season has ever brought record snow to the whole Red River watershed. This year's more than 40% coverage with record snowfall is the greatest area in the 60 year record. Perhaps more significantly, the record snowfalls occured immediatedly adjacent to the river for about 2/3 of its distance in Minnesota (in 1896-97 record snowfalls occured along less than 25% of the length of the Minnesota portion of the Red River)! Previously, the largest area of the valley with record breaking snowfall in one season had been in 1965-66 when about 35% of the northeasternmost reaches of the watershed (none immediate adjacent to the river) broke snowfall records. Otherwise 6 different seasons (88-89, 36-37, 49-50, 55-56, 47-48, and 51-52) account for record snowfall conditions along the river's bank and all covered less than 1/4 of the watershed with record snowfall.


The greatest seasonal snowfall on record (1931 to 1991) varies considerably across Minnesota. The season in which the record occurred is also quite varied. One measure of the significance of the season is the area of the state for which a given season's snowfall represents the greatest of record. For the top 10 seasons the percentage area of the state for which that season is the greatest of record, and a brief description of the area affected are given in the table below.

 1950-51  22.0  Much of S1/2 of MN, also nr Red Lk
 1965-66  19.2  Much of NW, NC MN but not Red River Valley
 1949-50  10.2  Most of StLouis co, other smaller areas in N1/3 of MN 
 1936-37   9.6  Marshall-GrntFalls, Traverse, Aitkin-CrowWing, N boundary of NE MN
 1988-89   6.9  WC and N state boundary areas

 1983-84   6.1  SW to SC MN (incld. MSP)
 1964-65   4.6  StCloud to Hinckley
 1951-52   4.1  Wabasha and Rice co, NW of StCloud
 1968-69   2.9  centered on Artichoke Lake
 1961-62   2.6  Several spots in S1/3 of MN

Other seasons which yielded record snowfalls at points in Minnesota (in order of decreasing areas of MN affected) were 1970-71, 1935-36, 1938-39, 1955-56, 1942-43, 1974-75, 1947-48, 1971-49, 1958-59, 1953-54, 1981-82, 1978-79, and 1982-83.

Early Red River Flood Summaries

'Climate and Crops: Minnesota Section - 1897'

Excerpts from the April and Annual 1897 editions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture publication titled "Climate and Crops: Minnesota Section" are provided here. That publication summarized climate data gathered in Minnesota immediately following the ending of a given time period. In addition to providing tables of climate data, it was their custom to add a discussion relevant to the climate issue of the day. In these editions, they covered the spring flooding of 1897 and how it compared to "early" floods in the Red River Valley.

History of Early Floods in the Red River Valley (April 1897)

Some of the oldest inhabitants of this section, in view of the present flood situation, are recalling a statement which was frequently made by Pierre Bottineau, the noted guide and scout, a large portion of whose life was spent in this vicinity and who at one time resided at Red Lake Falls. It was to the effect that people would live to see the day when the water in the Red river would reach the level of the prairies on either bank.

In this connection a bit of ancient history is decidedly interesting. J. W. Bond, the historian, who came to the Red River Valley in 1851 for the purpose of treating with the Indians for the Red Lake reservation, says they found the valley desolate and barren. Everything was drowned out by the inundations of the river, which had occurred for several successive years. In this book published in 1853 he says of this section: "Along the course of the river, both banks within the margin of the stream, are covered with the thick growth of drowned-out willows, while farther back on the prairie, fine large trees, majestic oaks and elms, are in the same condition; and now stand towering aloft like high, giant skeleton sentinels throwing out their dry and leafless limbs across the water as if to guard its passage. Each tree is marked at the height of about 30 feet above the water, by the heavy drift ice during the freshets. In some places the timber merely skirts the river, at others it extends further than the eye can penetrate; and no prairies being visible for miles, all is a desolate solitude of dead and dying skeleton trunks of leafless trees.

No farming whatever is being done here on account of the annual floods in the valley for three years past, the waters having risen to the height of thirty-one and thirty-three feet above the low water mark, flooding all the country and inundating houses at this place (Pembina) to the depth of two or three feet. The ground is destitute of grass, with tall, rank weeds three and four feet in height abounding.

The heaviest floods known in the country occurred in 1824, 1825 and 1826. The last year the water rose sixty-six feet in height and the whole country was completely drowned out.

This produced such universal distress that many of the most wealthy and influential citizens left Selkirk in consequence and made an overland journey across the plains to St. Peters and Galena, near which last place they settled. In 1825 the snow fell the 15th of October in great quantity and remained on the ground. Still more fell during the winter, which was one of the coldest which had passed for twenty-five years. The snow melted suddenly about the last of April. The water had already risen in the streams as high as the banks when the ice, which had scarcely diminished in thickness, was dragged away by the violence of the current, and taking a straight course, rooted up trees and demolished edifices and whatever found itself in its way.

The fish, the principal resource of the inhabitants at this season of the year, were dispersed in this immense extent of water and the fishermen were not able to take them. The bison that were ordinarily found in abundance near the river Pembina went away, and about fifteen persons who had calculated on this resource perished from hunger. The waters did not recede entirely until the 20th of July; when some persons risked sowing barley, which came to maturity."

A similar condition of affairs did not occur again until 1852. Then "the water rose a foot higher than in 1826 (sixty-seven feet above low water), and the losses occasioned by it are still greater." Fencing, grain and property of all kinds was washed away and destroyed. -- Crookston Times.

The Red River Flood of 1897 (April 1897)

The rapid melting of the vast amount of snow covering the Red River basin at the end of March, and succeeding days, has caused the greatest flood known to the inhabitants of the Valley.

The history of the Valley extends back to about 1800, and during that period great floods have occurred, previous to this year, in 1826, 1852 and 1882, besides many of lesser note.

The flood of this year began about the 1st of April, in the upper part of the Valley, the crest reaching Moorhead on the 5th, and from there, the usual time of 20 or 21 days was occupied in reaching the State boundary. The Valley is very flat, and the progress of the flood being frequently interrupted by large ice gorges, which raised the level of the water, the country on each side of the river was inundated from 12 to 20 miles, or for the whole territory, a strip averaging 30 miles wide by 150 miles long.

A number of lives have been lost, and the losses to property in this area of about 4,500 square miles, in the way of damage to grain, both in storage and seeded, stock, buildings, fences, personal effects, &c., is enormous, and can never be more than roughly estimated in the country regions. Whole counties are left with hardly a bridge, and roads badly damaged, which will cost, in some cases, well on to $50,000 to replace or repair. Railroads also have suffered severely, not only from interrupted traffic, but from injury to their road beds, and in one or more instances the tracks have been carried long distances from their former places.

Relief for 50,000 homeless people has been asked of Federal and State Governments.

Fortunately these floods recede so rapidly that the preparation of the land for seeding is not so delayed as to injure the prospects of a good crop. Between the boundary and Winnipeg, the level of the Valley falls off at a rate of about 6 feet per mile, so that after the river is free of gorges south of the boundary, the movement of the water is very rapid. In addition to this the porous condition of the soil is such that a large proportion of the water on the tillable land is absorbed.

Though the losses and discomforts are great, the flood is not entirely without its benefits, as it has enriched the soil, and supplied to it so much moisture that only an unprecedented drouth can prevent an abundant harvest this year.

General Summary for the Year 1897 (Annual 1897)

April: The average temperature was about the normal. The extremes of temperature were 92 and -3 degrees. The precipitation was considerably below the normal, the greatest deficiency being in the central portion of the state. The month opened with the snow about all gone from the southern half of the state, and that remaining in the northern portion, melting rapidly, that by the 9th, there was not much left that was not turned into water, causing one of the greatest floods ever known in the Red River valley. The crest of the flood reached Moorhead on the 5th, and from there to the state boundary, the usual time of three weeks was required. The level country extending from 12 to 20 miles from the river was inundated, causing great suffering and damage. As the crest of the flood moved northwards, the waters south of the crest receded rapidly, so that by the 25th spring wheat was being sown in Polk county, and southward in the valley. A little wheat was sown in favored places by the 12th, and considerable was sown in the south after the 15th, but seeding was not general till the 20th. By the end of the month most of the wheat, oats and barley had been sown, except in the northern part of the valley. Winter wheat, in the small areas where it was planted, wintered badly. The ice in the lakes in the central counties was gone by the 15th. The Red River ice went out at Fergus Falls about the 10th.

May: The Red River receded rapidly, and the land dried up very fast after the water left it, so that by the 5th, wheat seeding was progressing rapidly in the whole valley, excepting near the water courses, with wheat, oats and barley about all sown south of Polk county, and early sown wheat and oats standing well.

'Climatological Data - Minnesota'

Minnesota - April, 1950

M.R. Hovde, Section Director - Minneapolis

Weather Summary

Flooding in the Upper Red River of the North Valley began on March 31st as the frozen northerly reaches of the river blocked runoff from the south. Damage from flooding during April was unusually large, as flood stages were exceeded at all points on the Red River of the North. However, greater losses were sustained in May when record flooding occurred in the Red River of the North and tributaries. On April 23rd the ice broke a gate in a dam across the Red Lake River, five miles north of Crookston which resulted in a flash flood at Crookston that inundated about eon-half of the city with water up to eight feet deep, but no lives were lost. At the close of April, the Red River of the North was virtually 10 miles wide north of Oslo. Flood stages in the Lower Red River of the North were the highest ever recorded. (As the flood continued into the month of May, the estimated damage will appear in the May 1950 Climatological Data.)

Minnesota - May, 1950

M.R. Hovde, Section Director - Minneapolis

Weather Summary

The Red River of the North flood continued throughout May. Flood crests of April were exceeded during May at all points north of Fargo-Moorhead. In the Lower Red River of the North valley from Grand Forks northward to the Canadian Border, the flood was the most disastrous on record. While the crest at Grand Forks was not as high as in 1897 or 1882, the damage was much greater because of the increased value of property. The Roseau River at Ross near the international boundary reached the highest stage since 1896. As the Red River of the North continues to be out of its banks from Grand Forks northward to the Canadian Border at the close of May, the estimate of damage will appear in the June 1950 Climatological Data.

Minnesota - June, 1950

M.R. Hovde, Section Director - Minneapolis

Weather Summary

The record-breaking spring flood in the lower Red River of the North continued in the month of June. The greatest losses in the disastrous spring floods that affected northern and eastern Minnesota occurred in the Red River of the North Valley.

Minnesota - April, 1952

M.R. Hovde, Section Director - Minneapolis

Weather Summary

The April 1952 flood in the Red River of the North Valley was mainly an upper valley flood with relatively minor flooding downstream from Fargo-Moorhead to the Canadian Border. In the Breckenridge-Wahpeton and Moorhead-Fargo areas the flood assumed major proportions. The crest at Moorhead, Minnesota, 34.65 feet on April 16, 1952, has been exceeded only once in the past 60 years, by 40.1 foot crest in the flood of 1897. The cause of the flood was the rapid melting during the second week in April of the heavy snow accumulation during the winter in the area to the south of Fargo. Other contributing factors were (1) unusually cold weathering December resulting in rather deep frost in the spring, and (2) a late runoff with consequent quick change to warm temperatures. Flooding began in the upper valley on the 8th. Many buildings were inundated and many others were affected by seepage. At Grand Forks, the Red River of the North was above flood stage from the 12th to the 30th. The loss on the Minnesota side of the Red River of the North was estimated at $985,600. -- WML

Minnesota - April 1956

Weather Summary

Joseph H. Strub, Jr.


Although April was cold and the spring snow melt was delayed and prolonged throughout the Upper Mississippi River and the Red River of the North some flooding did occur, but was much less serious than it would have been if April had been a warm month. The most serious flooding occurred along the Red River of the North and its tributaries from Moorhead downstream to the Canadian Border. At Crookston the Red Lake River crested over bankful on the 20th. Many of the tributaries in northwestern Minnesota reached bankful or more several times due to the alternate periods of melting and freezing. One of the areas hardest hit was Hallock and vicinity. For more detailed information such as stages and dates of flooding it is suggested that Weather Bureau publication Climatological Data, National Summary for April 1956 be referred to.

Prepared by:

State Climatology Office, DNR - Division of Waters


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URL: http://climate.umn.edu/doc/journal/flood_1997/snow97.htm
Last modified: April 29, 1997