See the dramatic toll of climate change right in America’s heartland

Devils Lake’s growth is unstoppable, wiping out farmland and towns on its way. Paul Johnson’s photo essay shows the dramatic effect of climate change right in the very heart of America’s Midwest.


Scientists say that climate change is increasing the power and frequency of tornadoes, hurricanes, and drought-driven fires throughout the United States. But climate change is affecting us in more subtle, albeit no less dramatic ways, too, as this photo essay by Paul Johnson shows. Welcome to Devils Lake, North Dakota.


Devils Lake used to be a nice, small lake. Farms and towns surrounded it, enjoying the advantages it provided for irrigation. But for the past few decades, the lake has been living up to its name, wiping out those farms and towns along with roads, railways, and highways as it expands inexorably. Scientists say the lake’s growth has been caused by abnormal rainfall in the area produced by climate change.

It wasn’t always this way. As American Scientist reports, Devils Lake had almost evaporated after the Dust Bowl, the long series of dust storms and droughts that came in three waves—in 1934, 1936, and from 1939 to 1940. But today, the lake covers 201,390 acres and has been rising steadily, going from a depth of nine feet to 42 feet since 1964.

Scientist say that the lake’s volume is now 370 times larger than it was in 1940. And its expansion, they claim, is not going to stop. The Devils Lake basin is a much larger area than the actual lake, which means that it has plenty of room to grow, as you can see in the image below. The land there is very flat, so a few inches of continuous rainfall will cause the lake to expand thousands of acres in a single season.

A map of the Devils Lake Basin. The blue marks the actual lake. The black line is the extent of the basin, which in theory is the maximum size of the lake. Entire counties could be swallowed by its waters. [Image: Devils Lake Basin Water Resource Board]
The city of Devils Lake is building an expansion to the current levee that protects the area from annihilation because the waters keep rising. Some have suggested moving the entire town of Minnewaukan—which now sits on the lake’s western shore opposite Devils Lake city—before it is too late. Just in 2016, 130,800 acres of farmland were flooded.

Johnson’s photo series captures the human drama at play here. Here you can see farms standing in the middle of the water—some of them about to collapse. The lake’s expansion—as one of the farmers affected told journalist Sharlene Breakey—“was like dying a slow death.” Breakey relates the farmer’s disbelief after the first 1,500 acres of his land were submerged in water: “We saw fish jumping while we filled up the tractors and knew the house was next.”


[Photo: Paul Johnson]
Johnson—who is a native of the area just like Breakey—described to online travel guide Passion Passport how his project came to be. One day, returning on the train to his homeland from Minneapolis, where he is based now, he saw the familiar landscape completely gone. Instead of fields of crops and farms, he saw a massive body of water, with some houses and grain silos rising over the mirror-like surface.

It was a surreal view, and he wanted to document it first because, despite the backstory, it had intrinsic aesthetic value: “I hope these diametrically opposed subjects of formerly prosperous farms sitting in the middle of a lake makes people feel something on a deeper level; whether it’s wonder, sadness, bewilderment or curiosity, I don’t really care as long as it’s something,” he told the magazine. Beyond that, he also wanted to document the lake, because these structures were quickly disappearing.

In fact, his work process became a testament to the blinding speed at which this drama is developing. “Before visiting, I printed satellite photos of farms that were completely inundated by water with the intent to kayak out to and photograph as many as possible before they disappear into the lake,” he told Passion Passport. But when he actually got to the lake, he found out that many of these structures were completely gone. The satellite images were barely two years old, but, in that time, they were completely gone: “There’s no trace of most of the farms that used to exist where the lake is now. Sometimes a steel grain bin or an old windmill would be the only remaining sign.” This, he thinks, was nature at work: During the winter, the ice strangled the wooden structures, which then collapsed when the ice melted. The pieces, he says, were probably wiped away by summer storms and taken away by the lakes.

You can follow Johnson’s work on his Tumblr page and Instagram.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.