This is why it’s called a “floodplain forest”

Inundated floodplain forest photographed 04/29/2011 near Blissfield Michigan.

Today the television weather report for southeast Michigan said we’ve had the second-highest April precipitation on record.  We’ve experienced significant rainfall almost daily for two weeks, and this has lead to serious flooding.

Inundated floodplain forest photographed 04/29/2011 near Blissfield Michigan.

The River Raisin is the largest waterway in this area.  Near Blissfield it’s now less than three feet from the highest level ever recorded on February 20, 1981.  Water is flowing at about 6500 cubic feet per second (cfs), well above the normal 1000-2000 cfs.  If it reaches the predicted crest of 684.4 feet above sea level, this will likely go down as the fourth worst flood on record here.

Inundated floodplain forest photographed 04/29/2011 near Blissfield Michigan.

When the river spills over its banks, it inundates the wide low areas on either side.  Most of this floodplain acreage is cultivated for agriculture.  Between the fields and the river, however, there are bands of floodplain forests of varying width.

Inundated floodplain forest photographed 04/29/2011 near Blissfield Michigan. The river is normally contained in banks that run between the trees in the foreground and the trees in the background. At this point the river is perhaps five times its normal width here.

These narrow bands of floodplain forest communities are remnants of a time before European-American settlement when this area was known as the Cottonwood Swamp.  The entire region was covered with standing water and trees, especially enormous eastern cottonwoods (Populus deltoides, Salicaceae):

Eastern cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides, Salicaceae) towering over the flood water. Photographed 04/29/2011 near Blissfield Michigan.

Settlers dug extensive networks of drainage ditches, emptying the swamps.  They cleared vast areas of forests for farming, leaving thin strips of trees adjacent to the streams and rivers.  These remaining strips of floodplain forests still harbor many cottonwoods, along with a lot of other interesting organisms.  Many of the plants, animals, and fungi I photograph and write about on this site are found in these forests.  The biodiversity and effects of flooding make it my favorite community to observe.

Inundated floodplain forest photographed 04/29/2011 near Blissfield Michigan. The left bank harbors a number of spring ephemerals, including white trillium, white troutlily, mayapple, spring beauty, and wildginger.

Humans have drained the swamp, felled most of the trees, tilled the land, and largely tamed the river.  Every so often, however, nature puts on a show like this to remind us of its power and the former watery glory of this region.

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About Jeremy Sell

Science and nature nerd.
This entry was posted in Botany, Ecology, Weather and Climate and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to This is why it’s called a “floodplain forest”

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