The Shores of Lake Agassiz

Each spring a version of Lake Agassiz re-appears on the Northern Plains. Lake Agassiz was a large glacial lake that once occupied most of the Red River valley and extended north of Lake Winnipeg. Some have associated the discharge of water from Lake Agassiz around 13,000 years ago with the rapid cooling of the Younger Dryas. Another substantial discharge around 8000 years ago likely resulted in a measurable change in global sea levels and has been associated with the 8.2 kiloyear climate event. This event occurred with the infusion of fresh water into the Arctic which disrupted the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean leading to climate change in Europe. This change, around 6400 BCE may have contributed to the end of the Neolithic in the Near East and Southeastern Europe. Some have linked the change in climate during this period to the Biblical floods. 


In short, Lake Agassiz was kind of a big deal. 

Today, the Red River of the North follows the border between North Dakota and Minnesota and separates the cities of Fargo, North Dakota from Moorhead, Minnesota ad the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota from East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The Red River caused the flood of 1897 and the more famous flood of 1997. While our town is now protected by imposing flood walls, it remains a dramatic event when the river floods.

As the waters retreat from the swollen Red River, I like to walk along the shores of the temporary lake and look at the things the current has left behind. The “wrack” lines created by the retreating waters create interesting patterns across the landscape.

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Last year, I became interested in the trash carried by the river and left behind by its retreating waters. I did a little informal survey of the trash that I found in the wrack zone. It yielded dog poop bags, golf course pencils, sections of PVC pipes, aluminum cans, and the ubiquitous extruded polystyrene. I reported it here. This work not only got me thinking of Matthew Edgeworth’s work on rivers (here, here, here, here), but also Þóra Pétursdóttir 2017 article in Archaeological Dialogues, “Climate change? Archaeology and Anthropocene” (24, 175-205) and the recent volume, Rivers of the Anthropocene, edited by Jason M. Kelly, Philip Scarpino, Helen Berry, James Syvitski, Michel Meybeck.

If I had all the time and energy in the world, I’d organize a little research project that walks the wrack zone of the retreating Red River in our local park and documents the trash present there. The challenge with this kind of research is that it involves not only trash, which is kind of gross, but also the vagaries of the Red River floods (as well as access to the retreating waters which is not practically problematic, but often involves a kind of legal grey area because many of the parks are closed during the floods and their aftermaths). These are not insurmountable problems, of course, and maybe even now as the flood of 2020 is receding, I could do another informal survey (complementing the one that I conducted last year). 

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