The serious drought in much of the United States over the past several months is having an impact on the Mississippi River, the second-longest river in the country after the Missouri River.
The Mississippi’s water levels fell so low in some places that they surpassed records set more than 30 years ago.
“We can’t compare the river to the 1800s because we have levees, reservoirs and dams today,” said Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center in Slidell, Louisiana.
The Mississippi River travels through 10 states, starting from Minnesota and ending in Louisiana, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Eight other states also share their borders with the waterway: Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.
Andrew Joyner, climatologist for the state of Tennessee, told VOA it’s not uncommon for Mississippi River water levels to decline because of lack of rain. But this time, it has been much worse.
“Even about a week ago, over 80% of the country was experiencing abnormally dry conditions. You’ve got multiple basins that flow into the Mississippi River that are a good bit drier than usual in the Midwest and mid-South,” Joyner said.
“We typically get low water in October and early November,” said Graschel, “but we’re having more extreme low levels on the lower part of the Mississippi than we usually do.”
The receding water has uncovered pieces of history.
The sunken shell of a historic riverboat casino that sank last year near Memphis, Tennessee, was exposed, as well as the wooden bones of a ferry that sank in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a century ago.
Some experts point to climate change as the culprit, warming the Earth and intensifying droughts.
“It’s hard to know to what extent climate change is playing a role,” Joyner said. “But it does fit a pattern of longer and more persistent drought conditions over larger areas of the country.”
The Mississippi River is an important route for commerce. Thousands of barges haul commodities such as gas, coal, fertilizer and building materials along the 3,766-kilometer stretch of waterway.
The barges are cheaper and more environmentally friendly to use than trucks or railway. However, the low water levels are making it difficult for the boats to clear some parts of the river, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dredging to maintain a channel for the barges, which are moving very slowly along the Mississippi.
“The river is a huge economic driver and crucial transportation corridor for our manufacturing and agricultural sector, and part of international trade,” Joyner said.
“Agricultural exports like corn, wheat and soybeans are being moved downriver for export, and that’s why these disruptions due to low water are so significant,” said Debra Calhoun, senior vice president of the Waterways Council, a public policy organization in Washington.
“With the war in Ukraine, global buyers are coming to the United States to purchase our agricultural products, and European countries are purchasing coal for energy to fill the gap from Russia,” Calhoun told VOA.
Experts say there are guesses but no crystal ball to determine when the rains might come.
“There has been some rainfall over the past couple of weeks, but it is not enough,” said Graschel.
“Unless we see good rainfall, we could have issues with barge traffic for quite some time,” Joyner said.