Worst Drought in 50 Years Risks Shutting Down Mississippi River


(An aerial photograph of the Mississippi taken near Vicksburg, MISS, on August 2nd, photo credit: Shreveport Times)

According to news reports, the ongoing drought affecting much of the United States is now the worst drought in 50 years. Impacts are being felt all over the country where rivers and wells are drying up. Even the mighty Mississippi, one of America’s greatest superhighways for transport and trade, is feeling the effects.

Overall, the river is now 13 feet below average levels. But in some areas, the river is running up to 20 feet below average. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river gauge on August 2nd (photo above) measured the lowest daily river level ever recorded there. These record low river levels have had a serious impact on shipping and, in total, nine barges have run aground since mid July. Barges have been forced to lighten their loads in order to remain afloat — losing 17 tons for every inch of extra free-board.

In many places, river levels are below the record lows set during the 1988 drought, which temporarily shut down the Mississippi to river traffic. Shutting down the Mississippi would have a devastating impact on commerce. As much as $300 million dollars would be lost each day. And since 60 percent of US grain, 22 percent of our oil and gas, and 20 percent of our coal are transported by river, these commodities are likely to see increased prices, further harming already hard-hit consumers.

Already, river traffic has been hampered. In many places, traffic is now one-way. One cargo towing company that operates on the river has been losing $500,000 dollars per month since May.

In response to the drought and increasingly low river levels, the Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging non-stop. The corps now has five dredges operating around the clock on the upper Mississippi. Of the $21 million set aside for corps river operations, $17 million has been spent on dredging alone. In the south, the corps is installing a $5.3 million dollar salt barrier to keep salt from invading further inland and harming water supplies for communities up river.

Forecasters, unfortunately, expect drier than average weather to continue for the Plains and Midwest: http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/expert_assessment/DOD.html. These regions provide the primary water supply for the Mississippi and some forecasters are calling for river levels to fall further.

This drought is abnormal by any measure. But climate scientists such as James Hansen are stating that it is an extreme event resulting from human-caused climate change. In the past, scientists like Hansen had warned of increasingly extreme conditions due to climate change. And the past two years has been an excellent allegory for these predictions. Just last year the Mississippi experienced record flooding. Now, we are in a record drought that threatens to shut down commerce on the river.

Most climate models show that, as climate continues to warm, the United States continues to grow drier and drier. And though these impacts may already seem severe, they are mild compared to what lies ahead if carbon emissions aren’t drastically reduced by all countries around the world. This is the beginning of an ongoing crisis and the nations of the world will need major policy measures to responsibly deal with this crisis. To fail to act is not an option for a functioning civilization.

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