Lake Neusiedl

On March 4, 2015 · 1 Comments

All that talk of endorheic basins in County Divided got me wondering about similar conditions in other unexpected places. It seemed farfetched to find an area lacking natural drainage to the sea on the Great Plains of North America. So did a similar condition in central Europe. I searched around and the largest place in that general vicinity appeared to be Lake Neusiedl on the border between Austria and Hungary (map), where it was called Neusiedler See in German and Fertő in Hungarian.

Lake Neusiedl


Neusiedler See
Neusiedler See by Jonathan Spence, on Flickr (cc)

The basin wasn’t huge although I took what I could get for purposes of this topic.

The lake covers 315 km², of which 240 km² is on the Austrian side and 75 km² on the Hungarian side. The lake’s drainage basin has an area of about 1,120 km². From north to south, the lake is about 36 km long, and it is between 6 km and 12 km wide from east to west. On average, the lake’s surface is 115.45 m above the Adriatic Sea and the lake is no more than 1.8 m deep.

To put that in perspective, the entire drainage basin was about six times the size of Washington, DC or about one-third the size of Rhode Island. The Lake itself was somewhere about twice the size of Washington, DC. Nonetheless, although lacking in size, Lake Neusiedl packed a lot of beauty into its enclosed basin and national park that protected it.

This region around the steppe lake, with over 2 000 hours of sunshine annually, is one of the most popular holiday areas in Austria… With its unique flora and fauna, the transborder National Park offers rare plant and bird species as well as Asinara White donkeys, Grey Hungarian cattle and Mangalitza pigs, the appropriate protection and a natural habitat.

I learned soon enough that Neusiedl wasn’t completely endorheic.


Einserkanal / Hansági-főcsatorna


Sarrod #2
Sarrod #2 by Thomas Lieser, on Flickr (cc)

A basin without a natural outlet had one major drawback: it could fill up, overflow and flood adjacent countryside. That natural cycle happened many times over the centuries. Peasants simply dealt with it, dried off and went about their normal lives. Officials finally tired of intermittent flooding at the end of the Nineteenth Century during a time when the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary were united under the banner of the Austria-Hungary Empire. Thus came the construction of the Einserkanal (German) / Hansági-főcsatorna (Hungarian) in 1895, a canal "approximately 30 km long and 4.8 m deep on average and 7-15 m wide." It served like an overflow drain on a bathtub. The canal safely diverted excess water to the Danube River whenever the basin hit a desired capacity.

Nonetheless, the vast preponderance of outflow from Lake Neusiedl happened because of natural evaporation. Perhaps only 10% of outflow went through the artificial channel of the Einserkanal. I guess that would still make the watershed endorheic.


Brücke von Andau / Andaui-híd



The canal’s route never mattered much as long as Austria-Hungary endured. That situation changed after the First World War. Austria-Hungary found itself on the losing side and the empire split. That canal then became a portion of an international border albeit completely on the Hungarian side by a few metres. It created an effective barrier, a moat, to separate Austria from Hungary for many kilometres. That condition remained unchanged after the Second World War when Hungary fell under the Communist domination of the Soviet Union.

Then came the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, crushed by Soviet forces. Hungarians supporting the revolution or those simply fleeing violence escaped towards the border, running up against the canal. They found a single modest wooden footbridge, the Brücke von Andau (German) / Andaui-híd (Hungarian) as a passageway to freedom. About 200,000 refugees fled from Hungary and perhaps 70,000 of them used the Bridge at Andau (map) until the Soviets destroyed it. The bridge wasn’t replaced until decades later, reconstructed in commemoration of its historical importance on the 40th anniversary of the revolution.

The Town of Andau, Austria recalled those days (Google Translate):

In the local chronicle of Andau we read of these events: On Sunday, November 5, was heard the roar of tank engines and the rattling of chains of armored vehicles approached the border. The population held his breath, wondering what would happen. Our firemen moved to the border and marked them with red-white-red flags … In the next few days the first refugees arrived. From day to day the stream of refugees swelled. Thousands of them came from all over Hungary on the Einserkanal after Andau, in the freedom of the West.

The author James Michener was living in Austria at the time of the Hungarian Revolution. He interviewed witnesses and chronicled events in a nonfiction book he titled "The Bridge at Andau."

Good Fortuna

On February 22, 2015 · Comments Off on Good Fortuna

Fortuna was the Roman goddess of prosperity and luck. That would be an excellent name for any location hoping for some of that mojo to rub off. I was aware of a Fortuna in California (map), probably the largest Fortuna in the United States. It was settled in the heart of redwood country.


Along the Avenue of the Giants
Along the Avenue of the Giants by Images by John 'K', on Flickr (cc)

I’m sure it’s very nice and I’d love to go there someday and take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants. However this Twelve Mile Circle wasn’t about that particular Fortuna. Maybe I’ll circle back to that eventually. Not today.


Another Fortuna

Rather, I became fixated on the Fortuna I’d uncovered as I investigated the intricacies of what divided Divide County in North Dakota. There sat tiny Fortuna, population 22, all alone on the Great Plains (map). Let’s ride along on a little driving tour given by some random guy on YouTube, shall we?



Hmmm… there wasn’t much there, was there? A church, a gun club, a curling club, a few houses and a senior center.

Don’t be deceived. Look below the surface and every place is a geo-oddity. I myself live in the smallest self-governing county in the United States. I’m sure your little corner of the world has its own unusual geographic distinction too. Fortuna (pronounced For-Toona) was fortunate enough to have two unusual features, one created by nature and one caused by the arbitrary placements of lines by man.

We already discussed the first condition in County Divided: the Brush Lake Closed Basin. Fortuna fell barely within the eastern edge of this endorheic basin. Sandwiched between Arctic and Atlantic watersheds, water falling in Fortuna wouldn’t flow to either ocean. Instead it drained to nearby Brush Lake just over the border in Montana where its overland journey ended, trapped in a gouge carved by ancient glaciers during the last Ice Age.


US-Timezones
US Time Zones via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The second feature was somewhat more esoteric. According to North Dakota State University, Fortuna had the distinction of having the latest sunset on the summer solstice for any town in the Lower 48 United States, at 10:03 p.m. That occurred because of a confluence of a couple of different situations. Fortuna happened to be located at the far western edge of the Central Time Zone. The zone had a nub in northwestern North Dakota that made Fortuna considerably farther west than almost any other place along the time zone edge.

The exception was a corner of west Texas east of El Paso, say, somewhere like Van Horne (map). It was just a little farther west than Fortuna. However there was a different factor that more than made up the difference: latitude. I put the points into a great circle mapper and found that Fortuna was about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) farther north than Van Horne. Thus, with that large of a difference I think it would be safe to speculate that sunset happened later on the summer solstice in Fortuna’s corner of North Dakota than anywhere else in the Central Time Zone. I suppose I could also check the other three U.S. time zones in the Lower 48 for their westernmost extremes although I’m simply not that motivated. The Intertubes said it was true and I left it at that.


But Wait, You Also Get This

Fortuna had history. I hardly would have expected anything of historical significance in such a remote area. Yet, ironically its remoteness actually created its importance. Out-of-sight places made ideal locations for a variety of Cold War artifacts.


Fortuna Air Force Station
Fortuna Air Force Station via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The U.S. government constructed Fortuna Air Force Station just outside of town, a radar base operating from 1952 to 1984. It was designed to track enemy aircraft and coordinate their interception should Soviets bombers have attacked the United States. The site was completely abandoned once the Cold War faded and fell away. Ghosts of North Dakota visited the old station recently and noted,

We got word that this base was to be demolished in 2013, so we set out to photograph it before it was too late… The radar dishes and domes were removed long ago, and the site has since been heavily vandalized and scavenged. The salvage rights were sold some years back and the team that did the salvage knocked holes in the walls of most of the buildings to remove boilers and scrap metal.

The station may soon become just another patch on the plains before too long, however Veterans of the 780th AC&W Radar Squadron still keep in touch.

What does the future hold for the town of Fortuna? Perhaps something fortunate. This quadrant of North Dakota has boomed in recent years because of oil discoveries in the Bakken formation. The population of Divide County increased by more than 10% between 2010 and 2013 (the latest figures available) after decades of decline.

County Divided

On February 18, 2015 · Comments Off on County Divided

At the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, right up next to Canada and Montana sits a county with a curious name, Divide. It looked somewhat rectangular like many other counties on the sparsely-populated Great Plains where few natural features could take the place of arbitrary straight lines.


Canadian-US Boundary
Canadian-US Boundary by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)

I’d encountered Divide County vicariously one time before without even realizing it as I researched infrequent border crossings between the United States and Canada a couple of years ago. The Noonan border station in Divide County was so lonely and isolated that it had only a single pedestrian crossing during 2011 (the most current data available at the time), although it also had motor vehicle crossings of course. This photo was actually another nearby crossing in Divide — I couldn’t fine one of Noonan — although notice the obelisk marker placed by the International Boundary Commission. I don’t know where I’m going with that. I simply liked the image and it probably looked a lot like the one at Noonan so feel free to use your imagination.

The international border probably wasn’t the divide that inspired a county’s name however, in spite of modern theories like that described by Dakota Datebook in 2007:

This time a name for the new county would be determined through a contest. The winning entry came from George Gilmore, a Williston attorney. Gilmore proposed the name Divide County. The Northern Continental Divide runs through the region. The county divides the United States from Canada. It divides North Dakota from Montana. And most importantly, the new county was a product of its division.


dakota
Divide County Courthouse by jeremiah.andrick, on Flickr (cc)

The part about the contest was true enough. Both Divide County and the Town of Crosby (the seat of county government) confirmed the story. It happened in 1910. Homesteaders were just then migrating into the area. There were just enough people to warrant a new county, thus dividing Divide from larger Williams County. The contest commenced, Gilmore won $5 for his efforts, and the name stuck. The preponderance of sources I consulted mentioned two divisions as the basis for the name, the divide from Williams County, and the continental divide. The notion of state and international borders inspiring a name were apparently modern contrivances.


Divide County North Dakota
Divide County North Dakota
Created Using USGS’s National Map Viewer

The continental divide fascinated me more in this instance so I went into the National Map Viewer and selected the watershed layer. Notice the dark purple line that marked the continental divide. Many people see "continental divide" and think reflexively of the Great Divide that separated west from east, the Pacific drainage area from the Gulf of Mexico. This wasn’t that divide. Rather this was the Laurentian Divide or the Northern Divide that separated water bound for Hudson Bay from that heading down towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Divide County’s northeastern quadrant and its county seat at Crosby fell within the Souris River watershed, which flowed into the Assiniboine River River then to the Red River of the North into Lake Winnipeg, then to the Nelson River and finally into Hudson Bay. Divide’s southeastern quadrant flowed a long distance too albeit with a more familiar set of names, from local tributaries to the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, and then to the Gulf of Mexico.

What about that curious notation on the map? The Brush Lake Closed Basin? Indeed, the western part of Divide County flowed just a few miles farther west and barely crossed the border into Montana before stopping at Brush Lake where it remained. A good 20% of Divide wasn’t part of either side of the continental divide, it fell within an endorheic basin created at the tail-end of the last Ice Age as glaciers gouged the plains.

The buried outwash gravels and the deeper river terrace gravels are very porous and support a controlled groundwater irrigation area, as well as supplying Brush Lake with a continuous flow of water through large springs in the lake. Being in a closed basin, summer evaporation serves as a pump to keep groundwater flowing into the lake. And since evaporation only takes pure water out, the minerals leached from the glacial gravels remain dissolved in the lake and accumulate, giving the lake its distinct color.



Brush Lake, Montana

Maybe we should track down Gilmore’s heirs and ask for the $5 back?

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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