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MATTERS AT HAND: Humidity plays big role in N.D. history

According to weather reports, we're about to experience the thing that separates the East from the West - and it happens in North Dakota. The thing is humidity. The East gets it, and the West doesn't. The boundary line is somewhere west of Grand ...

According to weather reports, we're about to experience the thing that separates the East from the West - and it happens in North Dakota.

The thing is humidity.

The East gets it, and the West doesn't.

The boundary line is somewhere west of Grand Forks. How far west varies from year to year.

Humidity is a fairly rare thing even in the Red River Valley, but it is more humid here than anywhere in western North Dakota. The difference is not just in how the air feels on the skin. The difference is what the humidity does on the land.


The Red River Valley is classified as subhumid. Western North Dakota is semi-arid.

Rainfall is great enough in the Red River Valley to sustain a wider variety of crops. But rainfall is not the whole of it. Eastern North Dakota is marginally cooler than the western half of the state, and the evaporation rate is appreciably less.

That means that what moisture there is sticks around longer. The difference is enough to create a quite different ecosystem in the East than in the West.

There's a difference in the rate of evaporation as one moves north through the Red River Valley. That's why Pembina County, in the state's northeastern corner, has the most varied plant life in the state. This is true of native plants as well as field crops.

Webb Vorhees, former mayor of Cavalier, N.D., pointed out to me that Pembina County grows a wider variety of crops than any other county in the state. He'd know. He's been county extension agent in Pembina as well as Mountrail County, where I grew up. Mountrail County is in the northwestern part of the state.

Mountrail County is wheat country - in fact, it's often the state's leading producer of durum wheat. Lately, both sunflowers and canola have gained a foothold.

But wheat is still king, as it once was throughout the state.

Mountrail County is ranching country, too. The landscape in much of the county is pure Western, with rolling hills and eroded badlands.


And Mountrail County is poor compared with the Red River Valley.

The richer agricultural base of the eastern counties is because of the greater humidity here. It's that simple.

But the richness of the valley has led to a different culture than prevails in the West. Differences can be subtle and hard to quantify - but they are real.

In the state's history, by far the most important of these has been the tendency to radicalism in the West. It's not that the West favors the Left. Far from it - although left-leaning movements have done comparatively better in the West than in the East.

Rather, the West has been more eager to embrace new ideas than the East. In the dreary days of the 1930s, this included a kind of agrarian communism.

More recently, the West has been reactionary, opposing tax increases, for example.

Both the left- and the right-wing movements grew out of the same impulse, though, and that is a sense of victimization. And that sense is grounded in the climate. Rainfall's just not dependable out there, and that makes agriculture a bigger risk than it is in the Red River Valley.

Of course, the West is changing. For the first time in the state's history, the western counties are major economic players. North Dakota now ranks eighth in the nation in oil production, and all of the oil is pumped from the West. That's where the coal is, too, and that's where the state's major tourism attractions are located - although Fargo and Grand Forks are greater tourism beacons than Medora, N.D., because the big cities offer shopping that tourist towns do not.


It's impossible to know what these economic changes will mean to the state's political life, but humidity won't be central to them.

Historically, humidity has been a major player in the state's politics, even though its role hasn't been acknowledged. In the future, though humidity will play a smaller role.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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