USGS: Climate change impacts some river levels, but not in Midwest
COLUMBIA - The Missouri River was given an unfortunate diagnosis in June.
Lower water levels were recorded at its source areas near Montana and may have been a result of drought and climate change, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.
In contrast to a dip in source-area flows, the USGS report has good news for much of the Midwestern reaches of the river. Water levels increased in the eastern Missouri River watershed, which includes most of the state of Missouri, the report concluded.
The bottom line: when a big river like the Missouri is sick in one area, that doesn't necessarily mean the rest of the river sick, too.
The report analyzed data from 1960 through 2011 from more than 200 streamgages, which provided continuous observations from the Missouri River. But even longer periods of observations are needed to truly weigh the effects of climate change, experts like Robert Jacobson, supervisory research hydrologist for the USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center, said.
The characteristics of drier, headwater areas of the river in Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas will not simply extend downstream, Jacobson said.
Another complicating factor is the high variability along the Missouri River. Projections are difficult to make and causes are obscured by major reservoirs and levees, significant tributaries that join the main stem later on, and differences in climate, Jacobson said.
The Missouri River, the longest river in the country, flows across a diverse topography of mountainous terrain to prairie lands through 10 states. (See map below). It snakes for 2,431 miles and is a significant water source for more than 250,000 farms, according to the Census of Agriculture by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Read more.)
The increased levels in our area are pretty subtle - there are only a few gages in the state that have statistically significant trends," Jacobson said. "In terms of climate cycles, the gage record covers a relatively short period of time, but it's the best we have."
When evaluating the potential effects of climate change, scientists need to account for variations in terrain, changes year-to-year in wet and dry seasons, and the impact of reservoirs along the main stem of the river.
"There's tremendous variability year to year that really affects this," Jacobson said. "Over really wet periods and really dry periods for many decades in the future, we might see the effects of global change, but exactly how they play out in central Missouri is difficult to say."
Perry Whitaker is an avid kayaker and river enthusiast who has completed the M340, a 340-mile endurance race along the Missouri, seven times. Whitaker said small changes in the river haven't affected kayaking trips in recent years.
"From the kayaker perspective, it's very hard to discern the difference of just a few inches of water spanning over several years," he said.
Jacobson said the USGS is continuing work on evaluating climate change impacts on the river.
His research on climate change in central Missouri is trying to connect gaps between historical records and global climate change models. He's trying to see if the data match up with predictions of more erratic weather, with higher highs and lower lows, he said.
Areas most affected by climate change were source areas of the river in Montana and western reaches through Wyoming and the Dakotas, according to the report.
(Editor's note: the below information is from an earlier report on the blog MuddyBootsNews.com.)
The Missouri River is a long, complicated, ever-changing creature. We can understand that better by flying a small hobby drone above it.
As the video above shows, the Missouri starts its life as rain and snow high in the mountains of the West. That precipitation eventually flows down cold, clear tributary streams and into the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin rivers, which converge to form the Missouri near Three Forks, Mont.
In the April 2013 video above, reporter Brendan Gibbons uses drone photography to tell the story of the Missouri River's origins.
This is only the beginning of the river, of course. Water flows into the Missouri from watersheds all along its 2,431-mile journey to its convergence with the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis.
Gibbons was then a senior in the MU Science and Agricultural Journalism Program traveling on a grant from Mizzou Advantage. He currently is an environment writer at the Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune.
This video was made three months before the Federal Aviation Administration ordered MU to stop flying drones.