Barges are getting stuck on sandbars and forced to reduce their cargo, disrupting a critical shipping route.
The waters of the Mississippi River have fallen to historic lows, driving a shipping and industry crisis in the heart of the US.
The Mississippi is a major channel for shipping and tourism, running from northern Minnesota down through the Midwest plains and emptying through Louisiana, with numerous tributaries stretching east and west. All that boat-based commerce relies on the river’s deep waters, which can accommodate hefty vessels carrying cargo like soybeans, corn, fertilizer, and oil, or cruise-line passengers.
For the past month, though, the water has dwindled so low that ships are getting stuck in the mud and sandbars at the river bottom. The Coast Guard imposed new restrictions on how low ships and barges can sit in the water. The price of shipping goods along the river skyrocketed, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) began emergency dredging to deepen the river at more than a dozen key choke points, where a backup of about 2,000 barges built up.
A NASA satellite image from October 7 shows the parched river, with barges queued up along its shorelines.
“This is the most severe we’ve ever seen in our industry in recent history,” Mike Ellis, the CEO of American Commercial Barge Line, told CNBC on Wednesday.
“That’s a significant impact to our supply chain,” Ellis said, adding, “We can’t get the goods there.”
The water receded so much that it revealed human remains and a 200-year-old shipwreck along the river’s new banks. In Missouri, people are walking across the dry, exposed riverbed to an island that’s normally only accessible by boat.
On the Louisiana coast, the river is so low that ocean water from the Gulf of Mexico began pushing upstream. USACE is racing to build a 1,500-foot-wide underwater levee to prevent saltwater from creeping further up the river, where it could contaminate drinking water, CNN reported on Tuesday. Already, there’s a drinking water advisory in effect for the coastal region of Plaquemines Parish.
Drought is drying the Mississippi River to record lows
Just a few months ago, the Mississippi River basin was flooding. This summer, historic rainfall caused flash flooding and overflowing rivers in Kentucky, St. Louis, Missouri, parts of Illinois, and Jackson, Mississippi.
Despite these extreme sporadic rainfall events, overall, the Midwest is in an abnormal drought. The Ohio River Valley and the Upper Mississippi aren’t getting enough rain to feed the giant river.
Up and down the Mississippi, waters have dropped to levels approaching the record low set in 1988. In Memphis, Tennessee, the waters plunged below that record on Monday, according to data from the National Weather Service.
“There is no rain in sight, that is the bottom line,” Lisa Parker, spokeswoman for the USACE Mississippi Valley Division, told the Journal. “The rivers are just bottoming out.”
Scientists must conduct rigorous analysis to attribute any single event to climate change. However, this year’s extreme conditions of both drought and floods is consistent with what scientists have been predicting and observing: Rising global temperatures are driving more weather variability in the central US, fueling both more severe droughts and one-off rainfall events.
That’s because climate change, driven by all the greenhouse gasses that humans have released into the atmosphere, is changing the planet’s water cycle. Rising temperatures are increasing water evaporation and changing the atmospheric and ocean currents that distribute moisture across the globe.
Droughts are unearthing relics and remains of the past
The severe drought along the river is so intense that it uncovered a centuries-old shipwreck. In early October, low water levels revealed the old sunken ship along the banks of the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Archaeologists believe these remains are from a ferry that sunk in the late 19th or early 20th century, The Associated Press reported.
Though this is the first time the ship has been fully exposed, it’s not a new discovery. Small parts of the vessel emerged from low waters in the 1990s.
“At that time the vessel was completely full of mud and there was mud all around it so only the very tip tops of the sides were visible,” Chip McGimsey, Louisiana’s state archaeologist, told the AP. “They had to move a lot of dirt just to get some narrow windows in to see bits and pieces,” McGimsey said.
McGimsey thinks the ship could be the Brookhill Ferry, which carried people and possibly horse-drawn wagons across the Mississippi, until it sunk in a storm in 1915, according to news stories from the State Times archives.
The river’s receding waters also led to a more gruesome discovery. On Saturday, a Mississippi woman found human remains while searching for rocks with her family on the banks of the drought-stricken river. The remains included a lower jawbone, rib bones, and some unidentified bone pieces, Scotty Meredith, Coahoma County’s chief medical examiner, told CNN.
“Because these water levels are so low that we knew it was only a short matter of time before human remains were found,” Crystal Foster, the woman who found the remains, told WMC.
They are the latest in a bevy of discoveries to surface from receding waters. Over the summer, multiple set of remains were found in Nevada’s Lake Mead, which fell to historically low levels amid climate change-fueled drought.
But it’s not all bad news. Shrinking bodies of water could be a boon for experts tasked with solving missing persons cases, according to Jennifer Byrnes, a forensic anthropologist who consults with the Clark County coroner’s office, which reviews deaths in Lake Mead.
“A big body of water disappearing is going to help us, from a forensic perspective,” Byrnes told Insider.
Correction: October 21, 2022 —A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misstated the location of Vicksburg. The city is in Mississippi, not Louisiana.
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