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Flood findings: Tropical Storm Irene informs Dartmouth student’s study of rivers

  • Jordan Fields, a doctoral student of fluvial geomorphology, left, and Dartmouth College senior Shannon Sartain, right, work together to plot changes to the channel of Charles Brown Brook in Norwich, Vt., Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Fields is studying the recovery of the site following the 2018 removal of a dam built almost 100 years earlier. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • With his hand for scale, Jordan Fields photographs the position of a painted rock embedded with an accelerometer used to help create a record of the flow-rate of and movement of sediment on Charles Brown Brook in Norwich, Vt., Wednesday, April 16, 2021. Fields is studying the recovery of a section of the brook after a dam was removed in 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Photographer
Published: 4/17/2021 9:37:16 PM
Modified: 4/17/2021 9:37:15 PM

NORWICH — Just before he began his senior year in high school, Jordan Fields woke up on August 28, 2011, to heavy rain falling on his family’s hillside home in Woodstock.

“I walked down the hill and saw that our road was completely washed out,” he said. Fields kept walking and found much of the Route 4 corridor underwater, as torrents of rain in Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Ottauquechee River.

“I didn’t even know what I was looking at. I was like, ‘Where is this?’ Because I couldn’t see any of the places that looked familiar,” Fields said.

There were no sports practices for the first six weeks of school that fall because the Woodstock High athletic fields, mostly situated in the river’s floodplain, were covered in sediment. Fields spent those weeks shoveling the silt deposited by floodwaters out of the basements of flooded homes instead.

“It was just kind of this earth-shattering event for a teenage kid,” he recalled.

It also launched Fields into his area of study, starting with earth science classes, to answer questions he’s asked since Irene.

Now a doctoral student in fluvial geomorphology at Dartmouth College, Fields is studying Charles Brown Brook in Norwich and how it was impacted by the 2018 removal of a dam along the waterway.

On Wednesday, he pulled on rubber boots at the side of Beaver Meadow Road and, joined by Dartmouth senior Shannon Sartain, walked down to the brook.

“This is the lowest I’ve ever seen it in spring,” Fields said as he approached the remnant of the dam, located about a half-mile upstream of the old Norwich Pool.

“The stream has been changing rapidly,” said Sartain, who began volunteering on the project in her sophomore year. She was introduced to undergraduate research through Dartmouth’s Women in Science Project, which provides mentors in STEM fields to freshman women. She spent that first year examining data and satellite imagery and was eager to get out and do fieldwork.

Fields’ master’s degree work focused on the dam removal site and the effect on the brook. His doctoral work now involves trying to understand how rivers recover after major disturbances — be they manmade or hurricanes — which was akin to what he witnessed with Irene, and which has become more pressing with climate change.

“If an Irene becomes a one-in 50-year event versus a one-in-500, what does that mean for river valleys in Vermont and infrastructure and roads, and the houses that I dug out in 2011?” Fields said. “Are they going to keep getting flooded?

“I don’t know. Do we try to fortify streams to prevent this from happening or go the opposite way and try to encourage people to move out of the way of the stream and let it function as a river that does its thing, which is flooding?”

James Patterson can be reached at jpatterson@vnews.com.




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